There are lots of strange creature and monster legends involving cultures around the world in the season referred to commonly as Christmastime. Today, let's explore a Swedish one - Julbock.
(LINK) Between Christmas and New Year, young people dressed up as weird characters, including a goat, and went from house to house asking for food and funds for their joint Christmas party. In the 17th and 18th centuries, attempts were made to ban the pranks involved. The origins of the goat character can't be traced for sure, but it may stem from a furred devil with horns that accompanies Saint Nicholas in European tradition.
In the 18th century, upper class families started having a goat character, the julbock, bring them Christmas presents. The julbock would wear a ragged coat or a sheepskin thrown over his shoulders, and a goat mask or goat head made from e.g. straw or wood. This tradition eventually spread to the farmers as well.
The julbock tradition lasted into the late 19th century, and in the early 20th century it was still a well-known concept. It was superseded by the jultomte, a vague cross between the international Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus character and the Scandinavian tomte tradition. I doubt that the julbock bringing gifts was quite as common the jultomte is today - at any rate, traditions tended to vary a lot more from area to area before the advent of mass-media.
Julbock is still prominently featured in Sweden in the holiday season.
As Christianity became the norm, the Yule-goat remained popular as a trickster figure, a stand-in for the devil who accompanied the elf Tomten, and later, St Nick, on gift-giving missions. It became customary for men of the villages to dress up as the julbock and play pranks on the unsuspecting.
Today, the Julbock is most often represented in modern times by a straw figurine of a goat, traditionally made from the last grain of the harvest, bundled in red ribbons and kept as a token of hope for the New Year.
Elf Tomte is a figure from Sweden too. It is one associated with the winter season. They appear much like a garden gnome. Their origins are associated with legends of a farmer who first farmed the lands and was buried in a mound on the farm. They are believed to be guardians on farmlands.
Interestingly, the farm-guardian and sometimes playful impish characteristics in a little person are also described in Tommyknockers (caves), Brownies (UK), and many other cultures. The little ones were revered in legends. In fact, in Tennessee in the 1700s, hundreds of little people's skeletons were dug up in Tennessee among the mound culture time period (LINK). Little ancient people have been found in Indonesia and Australia. So, there might be supporting evidence that legends remembered both giant people (Trolls, red-haired giants, Jotun) and the little people of the past.
When you see the straw goat ornaments, you now know that they are tied to Swedish culture and a very interesting legend. God jul!
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