Swedish word of the day: julbock

Here's the next word in The Local's Christmas-themed word of the day series, running from December 1st to Christmas Eve.

the word julbock on a black background beside a swedish flag
What do you think will happen to Gävle's julbock this year? Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s Word of the Day is julbock, which can be translated literally as a “Yule buck”, but is more commonly referred to as a Christmas goat (“buck”, and bock, is a male goat). A julbock is made out of straw and decorated with red ribbons.

Sweden’s most famous julbock is Gävlebocken, a 13-metre-high giant straw goat in the Swedish east coast town of Gävle, who is famous around the world for being set on fire (which, just to be clear, is illegal!).

At the time of writing, 2021’s Gävlebock is still standing. If it survives the Christmas season, it will be another historic year for the goat, who has never survived for five years in a row before – it has burned down 30 times over the years, with the first Gävlebock seeing the light of day in 1966.

Since 1988, people in Sweden and across the world have been able to bet on the Gävlebock’s fate each year – both whether it will survive the Christmas season, as well as which date it will burn down.

It is estimated that 1,000 hours of labour go in to building the Gävlebock each year, not to mention the materials – the first Gävlebock in 1966 is estimated to have weighed over three tonnes.

But where does the tradition of a Christmas goat come from?

There are a number of theories behind the julbock‘s popularity. One suggests that the goat is a reference to thunder god Thor, who rode a chariot drawn by two goats, named Tanngrisnir – literally translating as “teeth thin”, or “one that has gaps between the teeth” in Old Norse – and Tanngnjóstr, “teeth grinder”.

Another theory suggests that the julbock’s origins are connected to the historical belief that the last sheaf of grain bundled in the yearly harvest had magical properties. This sheaf was often saved for Christmas and considered to embody the spirit of the harvest.

In the 1900s, the julbock became responsible across Scandinavia for the giving of gifts at Christmastime – in some areas of Finland, the julbock or joulupukki is still responsible for handing out gifts on Christmas Eve. In most parts of Scandinavia, however, gifts are now handed out by jultomten instead – a jolly old man wearing red and white who looks a lot like Santa – and the julbock has been relegated to nothing more than a Christmas decoration.

Example sentences:

Min bror och jag har slagit vad om när Gävlebocken kommer brinna ned.

My brother and I have placed bets on when the Gävle goat is going to burn down.

Ska vi inte köpa en julbock att ha som julpynt i år?

Should we buy a julbock for our Christmas decorations this year?

Need a good Christmas gift idea?

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

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Swedish word of the day: liga

You may have this word in your native language or recognise it from football leagues such as the German Bundesliga or Spain's La Liga. Liga has a similar meaning in Swedish, too, with one crucial difference.

Swedish word of the day: liga

Liga originally comes from Latin ligāre (“to bind”). In most languages, liga means “league”, a group of individuals, organisations or nations who are united in some way.

Similar words exist in many European languages, such as Dutch, Spanish, Czech and Polish liga, Italian lega, French ligue and Romanian ligă.

A league is almost always something positive or neutral in other languages, but in Swedish a liga is something negative – a criminal gang, with the word ligist referring to a (usually young, male) gang member, thug or hooligan.

Political or diplomatic leagues are usually translated into Swedish as förbund (“union” or “association”) rather than liga: one example is the Swedish term for the League of Nations, Nationernas förbund.

The only exception to this rule is sport, where the popularity of international football leagues such as the Bundesliga and the Premier League has lessened the negative meaning somewhat in this context. Fans of hockey will be familiar with SHL, Svenska hockeyligan, and Sweden’s handball league is referred to as handbollsligan.

The history behind liga’negative meaning in Swedish can be traced back to the Thirty Years’ War, which took place largely within the Holy Roman Empire between 1618 and 1648.

Essentially, the Thirty Years’ War began as a fight between Protestant and Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire, with Catholic states forming the Catholic League and Protestant states forming the Protestant Union.

Sweden was – and still is – Lutheran, meaning that, when they got involved in the war in 1630, their enemies were the Catholic League – or the katolska ligan in Swedish, with its members being referred to as ligister or “league-ists”.

King Gustav II Adolf eventually beat the Catholic League in 1631 at the Battle of Breitenfeld, ultimately leading to the formal dissolution of the league in 1635 in the Peace of Prague, which forbade alliances from forming within the Holy Roman Empire.

Although this may seem like ancient history, Swedes still don’t trust a liga – the word’s negative connotations have survived for almost 400 years.

Swedish vocabulary:

Jag är lite orolig för honom, han har börjat hänga med ett gäng ligister.

I’m a bit worried about him, he’s started hanging out with a group of thugs.

Manchester United har vunnit den engelska ligan flest gånger, men City är mästare just nu.

Manchester United have won the Premier League the most times, but City are the current champions.

De säger att det står en liga bakom det senaste inbrottsvågen.

They’re saying there’s a gang behind the recent spate of break-ins.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.