One Town's Fight to Save Their 40-Foot Yule Goat

Sweden's Gävle Goat has been an annual holiday tradition since 1966, but the massive straw structure doesn't always survive until Christmas.

One Town's Fight to Save Their 40-Foot Yule Goat

Sweden's Gävle Goat has been an annual holiday tradition since 1966, but the massive straw structure doesn't always survive until Christmas.

"The Gävle Goat lives a dangerous life," says Maria Wallberg, his spokesperson. "But we are full of hope that he will survive this year."

Wallberg is on the committee that oversees the construction of Gävlebocken, Gävle Goat, the name given to the 42-foot, 3-ton straw goat built every year in Gävle, Sweden, since 1966. This year, if traditions hold, Gävle has about a 50/50 chance of being burned to the ground.

Or having a rod driven through him, or being hit by a car.

That's because destroying the Gävle Goat has become nearly as regular a tradition as constructing it in the first place. Every year for the past 51 years, townspeople cautiously wait to see if an arsonist will prevail.

"If the first goat never had burned down, you never know what [could have] happened the next years," Wallberg says.

Every December, the town spends approximately 1,000 person-hours constructing the goat from ropes, pine, and other (flammable) materials. It's built to coincide with the Christian holiday Advent, which this year fell on December 3, and it's taken down on New Year's Day (if it survives that long.) "Yule Goats" are a common motif in Scandanavian Christmas traditions, and the straw goat in Gävle is meant to be a large embodiment of that Christmas character. Exactly why goats are so strongly associated with the winter holiday is debated, but it's rooted in pagan celebrations.

Since 1966, only 25 Gävle Goats have lived to see the new year. Last year, on the 50th anniversary of the Gävle Goat coming to the town, it was on fire within 24 hours of being constructed.

Witness to Fire

Josefin Nordvall owns a lingerie shop in Gävle only a few hundred feet away from the goat's "pen." She sees it every morning on her way to open her store and says it inspires a special Christmas spirit.

On the night it burned down last year, Nordvall had been at a friend's house nearby when she decided to drive by her store to double check that everything was in order. When she entered the town square, she instead saw the straw goat ablaze. Fully lit, the 40-foot structure creates a fiery scene, with rolling plumes of smoke. By the time the fire burned through all the straw, only the bare skeleton was left.

"It's not fair," says Nordvall of the goat-burning tradition. "All the children are always sad. It's a sad feeling around the town."

Who's Burning the Gävle Goat?

The culprit behind charred straw goats varies year by year.

"There's no stereotypical goat burner," says Owe Rosén, a Gävle resident who plays Christmas carols in the square. "The goat has been an easy target for drunk people walking home at night after visiting a pub."

Nordvall adds, "One year it was someone dressed as Santa and a gingerbread man."

Rosén says a number of more extreme theories have arisen as the burning tradition becomes more well known.

"Among the municipality’s inhabitants, there are rumors of a secret goat burning association, which supposedly plans to burn the Christmas goat every year," he said.

"Sometimes I think it’s planned and sometimes [I think] it’s someone going home drunk in the night and gets the idea of burning down the goat," said Wallberg.

To protect this year's goat, she says the town has increased security. X-cons, people from a Swedish program that reintegrates criminals into society, are guarding the goat. Several large fences have also been added, and a live webcam of the goat is running 24/7.

For now, the Gävle Goat is still standing, but Wallberg says if it's burned again, they'll continue the tradition in 2018, adding, "We will never stop to build our world-famous Christmas symbol."