Sweden is a land steeped in old Yuletide traditions. The beginning of the pre-Christmas season of Advent sees homes, towns, and cities festooned with greenery, decorations, lights, and goats – yes, goats.
The country’s biggest Yule or Christmas Goat can be found in the town of Gävle. Every year, a giant wood and straw goat is built on the city centre’s Slottstorget or Castle Square, and almost every year, the goat known as the Gävlebocken is destroyed before December has run its course.
While many townsfolk are understandably not happy that their beloved goat’s fate usually involves a lighter and somewhat more than just a puff of smoke, the burning of the Gävlebocken is now regarded widely as part of the tradition.
Not only does the construction of the new season’s goat attract thousands of visitors, it has its own Twitter account and a range of merchandise, causes community members to volunteer for or form goat-guarding shifts, and inspires would-be arsonists to find creative ways to get to the goat for long enough to do serious damage.
The tradition of burning the Gävlebocken forces the town and law enforcement authorities, as well as the fire department, to find ever-more creative ways of outwitting prospective goat-burners. Not only have the authorities erected fencing around the goat, they have also used chicken-wire for reinforcement, fireproofed the structure, and monitored it via webcams.
What’s more, the goat has also become a popular novelty market among punters who love any form of gambling, and who bet on its method of destruction or on how soon it will be destroyed after its construction.
The first Gävlebocken was built in the 1960s, but the goat’s link to the season goes back much further. The origins of the Julbocken or Yule Goat are found in ancient festivals that celebrated the Norse thunder god, Thor.
Rather than disappear with the old Norse gods, the Yule goat remained as a beloved seasonal symbol. In 1966, advertising consultant Stig Gavlén had an idea to use the Yule Goat to attract possible customers to restaurants, theatres, and other establishments on and around the square.
The authorities loved the idea, and the first Gävlebocken was designed by the fire department chief’s brother, and constructed by the department itself. At 13 metres in height, 7 metres in length, and 3 tonnes in mass, the goat was impressive – and it had the effect hoped for by those who developed and brought the project to fruition.
However, on 31 December, the goat that had become an overnight sensation in Sweden was burned to the ground. The suspect was arrest, and was eventually sentenced for vandalism. Despite the shock and horror caused, that act of vandalism inspired a tradition that would see many winter nights light up with a warm glow.
The ongoing tradition of the Gävlebocken is rich with meaning. First, it is a lesson in tenacity – no matter how many times the goat is destroyed, it is rebuilt the following year in the hope that it will survive the holiday season unscathed.
Second, the tradition reveals that there are many ways to destroy a giant Christmas Goat. In addition to arson, the goat has also been smashed to pieces, stolen, hit by a car, thrown into a river, and has collapsed. It was also at the centre of a bizarre kidnapping plot that involved a helicopter.
What happens in this year’s holiday season remains to be seen. Whether the Gävlebocken survives or not, it will probably be back next year, along with those who want to keep the tradition alive, matches and all.