Gävle, Sweden: 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.

This is from 2014, but repromoting it every year is now a CityMetric Christmas tradition, so there.

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 mans 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 citys town square for the whole of December.

Then, on New Years 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. Its 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 theres a major blizzard on the night of 11 December, and the volunteer guards go to get some coffee on the assumption that you cant 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, whos only in the country for three weeks, burns the goat again, because he thinks its part of the tradition, and its worth quoting Wikipedia once again on this:

The court confiscated Joness 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 theyre 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. 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.