Just like last year, every Monday between Thanksgiving and Yule (Dec. 21st this year), I’ll present a post about homemade tree ornaments. It makes me feel festive!
With as fond as the Pagan community is of making corn dollies and burning sacrificial Yule logs, I can’t believe more of us haven’t adopted the traditional Scandinavian Yule Goat into our holiday practices. It would make a stronger Pagan Santa Claus myth for families with young children, too.
But I should back up a little and maybe define what a Yule Goat is. Today, it’s basically just a straw or wooden effigy of a goat tied with red ribbons. It’s been been used as a holiday decoration in Scandinavian homes since the late 18th century, and he playfully serves to guard the gifts under the Christmas tree (which was imported to Scandinavia in the 1700s). In recent decades past, he’s also been something of a gag gift: you sneak a goat into a friend’s house, and they have to dispose of it in a similar way after they find it. Many Swedish towns also erect massive straw or pine goats in the town centers, and vandals end up burning them down just about every year. Apparently some families now emulate this vandalism and burn their own goats after the holiday season.
The Yule Goat is such a common motif throughout Scandinavia–where he is called Julbock in Sweden, Julebukk in Norway, Julebuk in Denmark, and Joulupukki in Finland–that he’s got to have some sort of deeper meaning that’s been watered down since the introduction of Christianity and contemporary commercialism. One major hypothesis is that the goat symbol is is a vestigial solstice symbol. In Norse mythology, the god Thor had a chariot pulled by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. When Thor arrives as a guest in someone’s home, he slaughters, skins, and cooks the goats, shares the meal with his hosts, then resurrects the goats the following day with the help of his hammer, Mjöllnir.
Now, there’s nothing in the Prose Edda that links Thor’s goats with the winter solstice, but with Thor being the popular god of the blue-collar pre-Christian Scandinavians, the solstice being an obvious moment of solar resurrection, and people generally being a lot more hospitable during the cold months, I would guess that the goat became a handy symbol of the spirit of hospitality. It is know that in Pagan times, a young man dressed as a goat would “die” during the winter solstice festival in a pretend slaughter and then spring back to life. In some parts of Sweden, this Juleoffer was practiced as recently as 1960. Sir James Frazer described the practice in his 1890 book, The Golden Bough:
The actor, hidden by a coverlet made of skins and wearing a pair of formidable horns, is led into the room by two men, who make believe to slaughter him, while they sing verses referring to the mantles of various colours, red, blue, white, and yellow, which they laid on him, one after the other. At the conclusion of the song, the Yule Goat, after feigning death, jumps up and skips about to the amusement of the spectators. (1994:553)
I would speculate that the spirit of the Juleoffer persists in the vandals burning down the large town Julbocken of today, such as the Gävle goat. Even though the goat burns just about every year, the towns resurrect a new goat the subsequent Yuletide.
At some point, the Yule Goat became associated with bringing gifts to Swedish and Norwegian children, and in Denmark and Finland it became a figure that sort of terrified children and demanded gifts or at least sort of ensured holiday preparations would be done correctly. In many cases, the goat eventually became the mode of transportation for a Santa Claus-type figure (alternately, Odin’s horse Sleipnir took this role). A protective spirit in Scandanavian folklore–the Swedish tomte, the Norwegian and Danish nisse, or the Finnish tonttu–rode the goat and delivered gifts. Today, these figures have morphed into the Santa Claus figures Jultomte (Sweden), Julenisse (Norway), Julemand (Denmark), and Jolupukki (Finland–note the name here is still Yule Goat).
I think that there’s a lot of room here for contemporary Pagans to rework the goat into our contemporary Yule myths. We can play on the sacrificial angle, the hospitality angle, and we can even use it to craft a more Pagan Santa figure for our children, which might help them differentiate our Yule from the secular Christmas (especially since we have lots of symbols in common with the secular practices of the holiday).
Should you seek to integrate a Yule Goat into your holiday practices and are an American, the easiest way to procure the goat is to make him yourself. Failing that, you could try your local IKEA. The Swedish big-box retailer has been offering two goats for a couple years now: the 20-inch tall JULMYS ($9.99) and the 6-inch tall YRSNÖ ($2.99). IKEA also offers a 28-piece straw ornament package that includes four hanging goats ($5.99).