Monday, October 27, 2008

Julbock / Olkipukki Christmas Straw Goat Decoration

Yes it is creeping up on us again! With the clocks having just gone back, the nights are rapidly drawing and its time to turn thoughts to CHRISTMAS!

The Olkipukki Yule Goat is a traditional scandinavian Christmas decoration. Measuring approximately 28cm tall, with red ribboning.

The Yule Goat is one of the oldest Scandinavian and northern European Yule traditions. As such it is now a customary decoration or gift in Scandinavian homes. The straw effigy is handmade out of braided straw and a few wheat ears. In Sweden it is known as the Julbock, in Norway it is the Julebukk, (both names translating as Yule Buck) and in Finland it is the Olkipukki - meaning Straw Buck.

So - just why a GOAT at Christmas time - you might ask? Well, there is a curious combination of Pagan and Christian traditions in the Nordic countries. Joulupukki, (the real Finnish name of HE - also known as Santa Claus or Father Christmas) - was and still is also represented by the Pagan Goat. In Finnish, the word Joulupukki, literally translates as 'Yule Buck' - but he is Father Christmas in bodily form these days.

It all stems from ancient Norse mythology, which tells of the legend of Thor/Odin/Ukko, (the various names of the God of Thunder) who rode across the wintery, Christmas skies. The goat was actually the steed of that ancient pagan god - yes, he employed Goats and NOT Reindeer! The thundering chariot was said to be drawn by just two goats, one called Tanngrisnir (translated as: one who has sparse teeth) and another called Tanngnjóstr (one who grinds his teeth) Also known as: Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder or Gnasher and Cracker! They would be magically brought to life every season of the dark.

During pagan celebrations of the season, someone - generally a young man - would dress in a goat skin and carry or wear a pretend goats head. During a festive party the figure would "die" in a pretend slaughter and then return to life - magically brought to life just like Thors two chariot drawing goats. Celebratory offerings were then made to the God of the dark time of the year to thank for his bringing the sun back across the sky. Christian authorities were naturally displeased with these pagan winter rituals. Nevertheless, the celebration of the goat and his unpredictable behaviour proved to be a popular and an element of the season that lasted for a very, very long time.

Scandinavian families would gather the harvest and save some of the wheat sheaves to create a goat effigy out of them, gently tying the wheat together with red ribbons. It would be left to dry completely for Yule time celebrations, at which time it would be burned as a sacrifice to Thor.

Another tradition of the Yule Goat in straw form, was the custom of going door to door, singing carols - similar to British carol singing. Carolers would receive a small treat - sweets, cakes etc. The goat was supposed to be a little ugly though - a little scary - just enough to 'demand' these gifts at the same time! Later there was a shift towards the goat becoming the giver of gifts - rather than the demander! Men of the family would dress up as the Yule Goat again - with good intent and if you were lucky enough to be visited by him, it was a sign of good luck for the coming year. Thor's blessings were yours.

Eventually though even this 'tradition' saw the goat replaced with the Swedish Jultomte, the Norwegian Julenisse and the Finnish Tonttu - all a kind of Christmas Elf or Gnome, that later morphed into the Santa Claus we know today. Curiously, the name ‘Nisse’ may have come from the word ‘Nicls’ or ‘Niclsen’, which is a Scandinavian version of the German name ‘Nicolaus’ or ‘Niclas’ aka St Nicholas or Father Christmas! How entertwined! By the end of the 18th century though, the tradition of the man sized goat had pretty much disappeared and the Yule goat had been reduced to a purely a decorative feature.

However, of late, from the 1930's onwards - there has been a strong revival of the Christmas Goats cause! Depictions of the Goat feature in many Christmas cards and wrapping paper. Neighbours will visit each other with a Goat or even dress as the Goat again.. and many Father Christmas figures are shown wearing fur. Most of these figures that are on sale however are wearing Reindeer fur..mainly because of the plethora of the creature in Lapland and the fact that they are so heavily tied into the regions culture that it makes sense to use that fur. Whatever, there is a growing remembrance of the pagan God of Thunder during Christmas! I am sure he is crashingly happy about that! Nowadays the Julbock/Olkipukki is purely decorative and often placed near gifts to protect them.

A note to point is that the word “Yule” also comes from the Norse word 'Jul' or 'Yul' - which meant 'wheel'. Odin is known in Norse by the title 'Jolnir' which means, 'The Jul One'. In Sweden they say 'God Jul!' for Merry Christmas, although here in Finland it is 'Hyvää Joulua!' The day itself is celebrated on Christmas Eve.