The Yule goat is a Scandinavian and Northern European Yule and Christmas symbol and tradition. Its origins go back to ancient Pagan festivals.
Yule was the name of a winter festival that occurred in December and January on the German lunar calendar.
While a popular theory is that the celebration of the goat is connected to worship of the Norse god Thor, who rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr it goes back to common Indo-European beliefs. The last sheaf of grain bundled in the harvest was credited with magical properties as the spirit of the harvest and saved for the Yule celebrations, called among other things Yule goat (Julbocken). This connects to ancient proto-Slavic beliefs where the Koliada (Yule) festival honors the god of the fertile sun and the harvest. This god, Devac (Dazbog), was represented by a white goat, consequently the Koliada festivals always had a person dressed as a goat, often demanding offerings in the form of presents.
Other traditions are possibly related to the sheaf of corn called the Yule goat. In Sweden, people regarded the Yule goat as an invisible spirit that would appear some time before Christmas to make sure that the Yule preparations were done right. Objects made out of straw or roughly-hewn wood could also be called the Yule goat, and in older Scandinavian society a popular Christmas prank was to place this Yule goat in a neighbour's house without them noticing; the family successfully pranked had to get rid of it in the same way.
The function of the Yule goat has differed throughout the ages.
The earliest tradition of the Yule goat (Julebukk) was a pre-Christian pagan ritual. During the Yule holiday, they would disguise their appearance by dressing in a goatskin and go from house to house carrying a goat head.
In a Scandinavian custom similar to the English tradition of wassailing, held at either Christmas or Epiphany, young men in costumes would walk between houses singing songs, enacting plays and performing pranks. This tradition is known from the 17th century and still continue in certain areas. The group of Christmas characters would often include the Yule goat, a rowdy and sometimes scary creature demanding gifts.
During the 19th century the Yule goat's role all over Scandinavia shifted towards becoming the giver of Christmas gifts, with one of the men in the family dressing up as the Yule goat. In this, there might be a relation to Santa Claus and the Yule goat's origin in the medieval celebrations of Saint Nicholas. The goat was then replaced by the jultomte (Father Christmas/Santa Claus) or julenisse during the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, although he is still called the Joulupukki (Yule goat) in Finland.
German and Scandinavian immigrants brought this tradition to America. Though the practice of Julebukking may be dying out in Europe, it can still be observed on occasion in rural communities in America with large populations of people of Scandinavian descent, such as in Petersburg, and Ketchikan, Alaska.
Burning the Gävle Goat
In Sweden and other Nordic countries the Christmas contender for Santa is the Yule Goat. Giant straw goats up to 17 meters tall are being erected all over those countries every December. The making of one goat requires 3-4 tons of straw. The most famous goat of all is the Gävle goat, which was even put into Guinness book of records in the middle of 1980s.
Christianity overthrew Thor, but spared the goats. Since then, the goats played the role of the modern Santa Claus, giving out gifts to the obedient children. The peasants always had some straw to spare and to make goats out of it. However, this didn't last for long, since the church announced goats to be henchmen of Satan, and urged everyone to burn them, which gave birth to a new tradition.
Both of these traditions survived, and while the installation of a straw goat pleases the local authorities, the burning of it is very upsetting for them. Somehow, destroying the goat by all means possible without getting caught became a weird tradition among the citizens. The authorities try their hardest to make sure that the goat is safe or at least will survive until Christmas – they organize 24-hour policemen watch, set video cameras to broadcast the goat day and night at a website, where everyone can go and check if the goat is still standing. They hire guards, firemen, volunteers, fireproof the straw with chemicals, but to no avail. Most of the times, the tricky citizens come up with all kinds of ways to bypass the police and set the goat on fire or destroy it using other means.
Since 1966, the giant goat in the town of Gävle has been burned 23 times, in a few instances in mere hours after being erected, and sometimes even before it was completed. Besides that, a couple of times it was smashed into pieces, and once even run over by a car. The goat attack of 2005 sparked the biggest wave of goat burnings in Sweden, when many cities' goats went up in flames.
In 1986 the authorities of Gävle decided to built two goats and place them in two different parts of town, however both goats suffered the same inevitable fate. One goat survived an arson attempt in 2009, but was eventually stolen, and the other one was attempted to be thrown into the water, and then torched, after the webcam sites were attacked.
Nowadays, people place bets on the goat's survival. The goat arsonists are rarely to be caught, however, once, a 51 year old American spent 18 hours in jail for being suspected in the goat-burning of 2001.