CityMetric Advent 11: The town where goat-based arson is a Christmas tradition

The 2005 goat, shortly before someone burnt it. Image: Broken Haiku on Flickr, licenced under creative commons.

The Yule Goat is a Scandinavian tradition which involves making a great big goat out of straw and tying red ribbons round it. It seems to have started out life as some kind of harvest offering linked to Thor, whose preferred method of transport was a goat-drawn chariot. In the pre-Santa 19th century, Swedish people sometimes used to dress as goats to deliver presents. The Yule Goat, in other words, is a symbol of warmth, a symbol of generosity, a symbol of plenty.

The Gävle Goat, by contrast, is a symbol of a stubborn refusal to accept the blindingly obvious fact that people really like setting fire to giant goats made of straw. It stands as a monument to man's pigheaded stupidity.

A bit of background here. In 1966 Stig Gavlén, an advertising consultant living in the eastern Swedish city of Gävle, came up with the idea of adorning the town with a giant yule goat in place of a public Christmas tree. 


With the help of some local bigwigs, he made this dream a reality. The goat was 13 metres tall, 7 metres long and weighed three tonnes. It stood proudly in the city's town square for the whole of December.

Then, on New Year's Eve, someone burnt it down.

No matter, you might think. Christmas was over, it was insured, and, anyway, these things happen if you built a giant goat out of straw. So a local business group took over the sponsorship of the goat, and agreed to build a new one next year.

All was fine for a couple of years but, in 1969, it burnt down again. In 1970, it burnt down again: that time it lasted all of six hours. The business lobby group, a bit sick of seeing its goat go up in flames, stopped sponsoring it. But someone else took over, and the goats kept burning.

The Gävle Goat Wikipedia entry is, very possibly, the greatest page on the entirety of the internet. It's pretty well footnoted but, as ever with Wikipedia, salt must be taken. Nonetheless, some extracts:

1972: The goat collapsed because of sabotage.

1974: Burnt.

1976: Hit by a car.

1978: Again, the goat was kicked to pieces.

1979: The goat was burnt even before it was erected. A new one was built and fireproofed. It was destroyed and broken into pieces.

...and on it goes. In 1983, the legs are destroyed. In 1985, the town erects a 2 metre high metal fence, hires security and leaves soldiers from the local infantry regiment on guard. It lasts until January, then it burns down.

In 1986, apparently not put off by any of this, the business lobby decide they want a piece of the action once again, and start building their own goat. From then onwards, some years, there are two goats. That just means there are twice as many goats to burn.

By 1988 the burning of the goat has become such a tradition that, a thousand miles away in England, people are placing bets on when it will go up in smoke. In 1998 there's a major blizzard on the night of 11 December, and the volunteer guards go to get some coffee on the assumption that you can't burn a goat in a snowstorm. This assumption turns out to be wrong.

The remains of the goat. 12 December, 1998. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2001, a guy from Cleveland Ohio, who's only in the country for three weeks, burns the goat again, because he thinks it's part of the tradition, and it's worth quoting Wikipedia once again on this:

The court confiscated Jones's cigarette lighter with the argument that he clearly was not able to handle it. Jones stated in court that he was no "goat burner", and believed that he was taking part in a completely legal goat-burning tradition.

In 2005 the goat is burned by two guys, one dressed as Santa and the other as the gingerbread man. By 2006 they're storing the goat in a secret location. They need a secret location for their giant straw goat.

In 2013, they soaked the goat in an anti-flammable liquid. Guess what happened on 21 December?


In all, something like half the goats built in Gävle since the tradition began have burnt down. Another chunk have been destroyed in some other way. The survival rate for these things is barely one in three.

On, and in 1968 a couple had sex in it, but apparently that time it survived.

There are two lessons here. One is that festive traditions are pretty mutable. The Gävle authorities think the tradition is erecting the giant Yule Goat. Everyone else thinks the tradition is trying to set fire to it. Both these traditions have co-existed happily, sort of, for nearly half a century.

The other lesson is that people really like setting fire to goats.

For those who are interested in the fate of the goat this year, the authorities have helpfully set up the Gavlebocken Twitter feed. "I’m the biggest straw goat in the world," it says. "Follow my struggle to survive arson attacks."

At time of writing, the goat is still there. 

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I'm so confused. Image: Chris Sharp.

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