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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.