Some Northern Scandinavian countries celebrate the Christmas season with the Yule Goat, a throw-back to an ancient practice some say has roots in paganism (those these connections are tenuous at best). While some naturally embrace the mythical figure of Thor and his two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr for the practice there is no real explaining a giant straw figure constructed at the end of the harvest season.
In some places the goat was a central figure of a parade of masquerading pranksters who would go door to door wassailing and demanding gifts. If gifts were not produced the Yule Goat would impose punishment. Alternatively, the Yule Goat was often much like a modern Christmas tree in that it took up a central, prominent space where people would sing and dance around it in the celebration of Christmas.
In some areas the Yule Goat rules over the celebration of Christmas and stands like a watchdog to see that preparations are handled correctly. In many villages a custom of making a small, portable version of the Yule Goat was common and in the dark of night neighbors would leave it in the possession of others who then had to rid themselves of it on another night, a kind of doorbell ditch with a prop.
In the 19th century the Yule Goat became a gift bringer and men would dress up as the goat going home to home or attending parties to hand out gifts to children.
This loosely defined tradition continues to evolve. In the mid-to-late 1960s community organizers began erecting giant Yule goats made of straw that would appear just as advent would begin. But being made of straw also made the figure highly flammable and that proved too much for pranksters to resist. Arsonists soon became as traditional as the goats themselves and many cities stopped the practice. It is noteworthy when the goat survives a season now, as this report from Christmas 2014 indicates.
The tradition of the Yule Goat has now spread to Iceland, where retailer Ikea has made it a festive part of their Christmas celebration.