The 2021 Gävle Goat before it burned down, Source: Gävlebocken Twitter account

The Gävle Goat: Sweden’s strange Christmas thrill

The Gävle Goat: Sweden’s strange Christmas thrill

Will it go up in flames, or won’t it? The speculation is now a national obsession

Who said that that curious and bizarre traditions need to have ancient origins? In fact, the case of the Gävle Goat, a straw sculpture erected every December in this Swedish town, shows how traditions and customs can start as one thing and then spin off into something completely unexpected – and on several levels at that.

As we’ve already seen, goats have long been associated with the traditional Scandinavian Yule winter celebration, which pre-dates Christmas itself. On 1 December 1966, a tradesmen’s association in the town of Gävle (pronounced yeh-vleh) decided to build a 13-metre tall goat made of straw and place it on Castle Square to attract visitors. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the goat went up in flames, however, and the person responsible for it was arrested and charged with vandalism.

And just like that, a dual tradition began

The criminal act and the arrest did not deter future arsonists, in fact, it may have even inspired them to counteract the bourgeois leanings of the goat as a commercial attraction with anarchist mischief. Every December the town would put up the large goat and just as often someone would try to destroy it. By the way, burning it down has been a favourite method, but there are cases of mechanical destruction, including one with a car in 1976.

The whole thing quickly came to represent the duality of our civilization – its creative and its destructive forces constantly engaged into a tug-of-war. What is interesting is that neither side backed down and stood firm in its resolution to continue doing what it does.

Over the years, the town and its citizens started trying out different methods to prevent the destruction of the straw goat statue. This has included dousing it with fire retardants, placing volunteer guards, putting a webcam to watch over it (first such in 1996). These measures only caused the wanna-be destroyers to get more brazen and creative in their efforts. These included hacker attacks on the webcam, and even an attempt to snatch it by a helicopter and take it to Stockholm in 2010.

The whole thing turned into an unintended battle of wits that captivated the attention of the whole nation. So much so that now there are speculations and betting on whether the Gävle Goat will survive or not. And that itself represents yet another unintended spin-off on the custom. The score so far is 38-18 in favour of the destroyers, showing that it has not been easy for the goat statues to survive.

The good news for the town is that the longest stretch of unharmed goats happened only recently and lasted for four consecutive years. And if you’re wondering what happened to this year’s Gävle Goat – it burned down. That was the end of the long survival stretch.



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