Will the Gävle Goat survive this Christmas?
A lovely, hilarious story about a town in Sweden, a giant goat, and the relentless drive of arsonists to destroy it every year. Yule love reading it.
The Gävle Goat is currently being protected by 24-hour guards who patrol the perimeter nonstop, two security fences, CCTV, and the constant vigilance of volunteers around the world who watch a streaming image of it to detect and deter any malfeasance.
But if past is prologue, it might not be enough—and the straw goat, which towers 13 meters (43 feet) over Castle Square—could soon be destroyed, meeting a fiery end.
I: A Goat is Born
In ancient pagan traditions, a goat was sacrificed as a tribute to the Norse god Njord, a deity who could guarantee bountiful harvests. While the origins of the goat’s significance are unknown, it is said that Thor rode across the sky in a chariot pulled by two goats.
Later, Scandinavian tradition connected the goat with Christmas, first as a goat spirit that would arrive to double-check that preparations for the holiday had been made, and later as a more frightening creature who would demand gifts. By the 19th century, the yule goat had morphed into the bringer of Christmas gifts, which was later absorbed, in some depictions, into an animal who helped Santa Claus. (The name for Santa in Finnish is Joulupukki, which means Yule Goat).
In 1966, Gävle, a town about a hundred miles north of Stockholm, decided it was time to make a proper yule goat. It was the brainchild of an advertising man, Stig Gavlen, though the design and construction for the highly flammable goat was turned over to the local fire department.
It was the beginning of a long, unfortunate relationship between the Gävle Goat and the local fire department.
The Gävle Goat, you see, had burned to the ground.
It would not be the last time.
II: The Game’s Afoot
While the town of Gävle diligently tries to protect its magnificent Goat, it rarely succeeds. In the last 57 years, the Goat has survived intact until New Year’s just 19 times.
In 1970, the Goat lasted just six hours before it was set on fire by two drunk teenagers. In 1976, a student driving a Volvo Amazon rammed the Goat, causing its hind legs to collapse.
In 1988, the bookies got involved, and formal odds were assigned to the survival of the Gävle Goat. With money at stake, the Goat survived that year.
In 2001, the goat’s destruction went international. Six years earlier, a Norwegian had crossed the border and attempted to burn down the Goat, but had failed. This time, a visitor from Cleveland, Ohio got arrested for successfully torching the Goat. (The tourist claimed that he believed this was an annual, legalized tradition and thought he was participating in something officially permitted by Swedish law).
Four years later, in 2005, “unknown vandals” dressed as an unruly group of Santa Clauses and Gingerbread Men and shot flaming arrows at the Goat. Five days later, these unknown men were featured on Sweden’s TV3 program, “Most Wanted.”
In 2008, organizers had thrown caution to the wind, and had decided not to treat the Goat with flame repellent material. Anna Östman, a spokesperson for the Goat, claimed that the material made the Goat look ugly, “like a brown terrier.” This was like baiting the arsonists, who tried twice, and failed, before a third attempt was successful on December 27th, just before 4am.
By 2009, the town had installed a round-the-clock webcam to deter would-be arsonists. But the Goat burners would not be deterred. They launched a denial of service (DoS) hacking attack, knocking the webcam offline before they torched the Goat under the cover of darkness on December 23rd.
The next year, the Goat survived, barely. One of the men entrusted with guarding the Goat later reported that he had been offered a significant bribe to leave his post, allowing a helicopter to fly in and steal the Goat. The helicopter never came—and the goat made it to New Year’s Day.
By 2015, the hardened criminals had clearly gotten in the game. After the Goat was burned on December 27th, police launched a widespread manhunt.
They apprehended the suspect a few minutes later. His face was singed. He was still holding a lighter in his hand. He stank of gasoline. Upon tough questioning, the man confessed, admitting that he may have imbibed a beverage or two before burning the Goat, and that, in retrospect, it had been “an extremely bad idea.” He was asked to pay the equivalent of $11,000 in damages, money that would be spent on beefing up security for future Goats.
In 2016, the Goat was burned down, then replaced by a second Goat, which was then hit by a car.
From 2017 to 2021, there was a Christmas miracle. With double fences and security guards, the Goat survived for four years straight (one attempt was made in 2018, but it failed). In 2019, they added a K-9 unit to protect the Goat. The Goat again survived—the first time that it had ever remained intact for more than two consecutive years.
In 2021, the Goat was burned to the ground by a 40 year-old man. He was sentenced to six months in prison.
III: The Fate of the 2023 Goat, the Jackdaw Attack, and the Meaning of Christmas
This year, so far, the Gävle Goat stands tall, proud, and unburned. But it has a new enemy: jackdaws.
Sweden had unusually wet weather in July and August, which meant that this year’s straw has lots of grain still stuck to it. Flocks upon flocks of jackdaw birds have decided that the Goat makes a tasty Christmas treat. They have been pecking away at it diligently since it was unveiled, creating the prospect that the Goat will be destroyed not by arsonists, but by birds.
However, rest assured dear reader, that the Goat will not go down without a fight. Shortly after the jackdaw assault became known, the city’s “Goat Committee”—yes, that exists—held an “emergency meeting.”
The committee showcased that it understood the true meaning of Christmas, with one member stating that no further action would be taken, explaining in an official statement:
“It’s about that Christmas spirit, and the goat will continue to spread that Christmas spirit…It doesn't feel right to frighten away birds who are only following their natural instincts and want to have food.”
This is, of course, a lovely story about the weirdness of humanity. We are strange creatures, conducting unusual rituals, which makes life more vibrant and interesting than it would otherwise be. We sympathize with the Gävle Goat committee, diligently working to protect the straw animal, but some of us are secretly rooting for an innovative miscreant who might destroy the Goat in a delightfully unique way.
(If you would like to watch the Goat, you can tune into the live webcam here. When I just checked, there were 83 others already tuned in).
James Vincent, a writer at The Verge, had a slightly different take on the Gävle Goat, suggesting that it immortalizes our twin tendencies around Christmastime:
I know this sounds sad, but it’s also, I think, the actual spirit of Christmas. Not the arson itself, but what the arson represents: the eternal battle between goat-erectors and goat-burners; between the forces of cozy commercialization, eager to smother the season in ribbons, presents, and sparkly lights, and the contrasting, primeval urge to set something huge on fire because the sun has disappeared and who knows when it’s coming back.
However you interpret the wonderful parable of the Gävle Goat, I wish you the happiest of holidays, with joyous celebrations, and lots of good cheer.
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