Sweden’s Burning Christmas Goat

Every year the small town of Gävle erects a massive straw goat at Christmas, and every year vandals try to burn the poor creature to the ground.

Johner Images/Alamy

Every Christmas since 1966, a straw goat with arcing horns and red trim has stood proudly in the central square of a small Swedish town called Gävle. And for 24 of those years, the poor goat has been set on fire as part of an unofficial holiday tradition that the town fights valiantly—and mostly unsuccessfully—to shut down.

The routine begins on the first Sunday of Advent each year, when thousands gather in the town’s Castle Square to watch the Gävlebocken, or Gävle Goat, rise up in all its 43-foot and 8,000-lb glory.

This traces back to December 1, 1967, when a local advertising consultant cooked up the idea of erecting a “Yule Goat” to promote holiday cheer. Exactly one month after the first straw goat was erected in Gävle, it was mysteriously burned to a crisp. Since then, nearly half the town’s Christmas-time goats have met a similarly brutal demise, be it by arson, battery, hit and run, or host of other offenses.

From the day of its installation, the poor creature finds itself in the middle of a war between the town’s officials and their supporters and creative arsonists who try to get their hands on the beloved Christmas symbol.

The plans have not lacked in creativity or bravado. In 2010, inventive pranksters hatched an elaborate and expensive kidnapping scenario that involved bribing one of the goat’s guards with more than $7,000 and spiriting away the creature in a helicopter to plant it in Stockholm. It failed.

The Swedes don’t take fiery goats lightly: in 2001 an American tourist was actually jailed after he set the Gävle goat aflame. Each year, town officials are equipped with newfangled protective measures—they’ve even tried fireproofing the straw—to assure the tradition has seen its last flicker of flames, and 2014 is no different.

"For this year we've come up with what we think is a genius move to protect the goat. At least it will be a genius idea if the goat is still standing on December 29th," Johan Adolfsson, who occupies the esteemed role of spokesperson for the goat (and the town), told a Swedish news outlet.

The security measures involve moving the town’s taxi station around the goat so that Gävle’s citizens will keep an eye on their beloved Christmas creature. Security guards have also been posted to add some muscle (but this has done little to deter vandals in past years).

According to Adoflsson, the tradition is nothing more than good vs. evil, set in a quaint Swedish town. It is, he says, a struggle “between the good people and the good citizens of Gävle... and the bad guys, who are the arsonists, and this makes it a classic drama. Will the goat survive, or will it get torched?”

Throughout Christmas eve and day, the world is monitoring with bated breath. It’s no longer just Gävle’s residents who get to partake in goat watch—the fated creature has inspired an international following. Nervous fans can keep a vigilant eye on it via a webcam hosted on the town website that offers 24-hour goat viewing.

At the time of writing, Gävle’s goat was alive and well, covered in a sprinkling of snow and looking festive against a backdrop of twinkly lights.

Gävle Goat must be dreading the imminent holiday and his fifty-fifty chance of destruction. Last year, at this time he was already a pile of ashes. “I´m now writing to you from goat heaven,” he lamented on the blog he maintains.

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This year, the Gävle Goat has been chronicling the murderous attempts (so far three, all unsuccessful) and other goat-themed musings. His latest post compiles a top 10 list of “worst-songs-ever-for-straw animals,” with number one being ‘Watch it Burn’ by Camo & Krooked.

Since 2009, the goat has had a thriving Twitter presence as well, today enjoying up to nearly 8,000 followers. Its description boasts: “I’m the biggest straw goat in the world, follow my struggle to survive arson attacks.”

Riveted devotees from across the globe have been writing in their encouragement to see the Gävle Goat through the final push to Christmas. “Glad you are still with us! That warms my heart (but not warm enough to cause a fire),” an American tweeted. “[A]nother great morning to wake up and see you standing tall!!! I have a great feeling this year!!! #gonnamakeit,” another wrote.

With the final countdown nearly complete, Gävle Goat’s fans have reason to be nervous. Already this month, the straw body of a smaller version of the goat, his little brother if you will, was reduced to a face-down pile of bales.

And the Gävle Goat, apparently a sensitive creature, took the destruction hard. “Since some hoodlums and vandals smashed my little brother to pieces last Thursday night I've been to [sic] upset to write anything meaningful,” he wrote on his blog, no doubt imagining a fate of equal tragedy awaiting him the moment a guard’s eyelids droop.