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December 25, 2013

Wednesday, December 25, 2013 - ,,, No comments

A flaming Swedish Christmas tradition – the annual burning of the Gävle-Goat

by A. M. C. Knutsson

On Saturday the 21st of December the Gävle-Goat was again found in flames after unknown men engaged in a 4 a.m. torching session of this enormous straw creation. The men have yet to be found but the police are searching vigorously for the culprits. If found they would be charged with inflicting gross damage to property.

The burning of the Gävle-goat is a ritual reaching back to 1966, the year when Stig Galvén prompted the first straw goat to be erected in Slottstorget in Gävle, central Sweden. The Yule time straw goat has a long tradition in the Scandinavian culture. It reaches back to pre-Christian days when the god of War, Thor, was said to have a carriage pulled by two goats; Tanngnjost and Tanngrisner.[1] The goat has long been associated with fertility and farming, as such the last wheat sheaf of the year was thought to embody the harvest spirit. As such it could be formed into a goat to boost next year’s crops.[2] As the Nordic countries were converted to Christianity, the goat became increasingly associated with darker powers. None-the-less the Yule goat maintained a prominent role in the Swedish Christmas celebrations. Long before Santa Clause’s arrival at the Swedish shore it was the Yule-Goat who was in charge of distributing gifts to children during the yuletide. He, however, was not quite as jovial as the present day Santa, and parents often threatened unruly children with the Yule-Goat.[3] As late as the end of the 19th Century when Santa Clause finally managed to navigate to the northern countries, it was the Yule-Goat who pulled his sledge. Nowadays there is little left to remind us of the goat but the straw Yule-Goats found in most Swedish homes.

When the Gävle-Goat first appeared in 1966, it was then a symbol recognisable to all Swedes, however its scale was something quite new. The goat was 13 meters (42.6 feet) high and 7 meters (23 feet) long, weighing an impressive 3 tonnes. Since then every year a gigantic straw goat has been installed on Slottstorget around the first of advent. On New Years Eve of 1966, Galvén’s goat was the first of many to feel the power of the flame.[4] As opposed to most other vandals, the first one was caught and charged with inflicting gross damage to property. This was followed by two years of peace for the goat after which it again was torched on New Years Eve 1969. Whilst many forms of vandalism have afflicted the Goat throughout the years the most common by far is arson. When the goat burnt on the 21st of Dec 2013, it was the 27th time the poor beast has met its end by the torch.

In 1985 the goat met with a new level of fame when it was included in The Guinness Book of World Records for its impressive 12.5 meter height, which was later beaten by the 1993 goat, which towered 16 meters above ground. Since 1986 two Yule-Goats have been found in Gävle, as two competing associations have been building them: the Southern Merchants (constructing the Gävle-Goat, the bigger goat, usually targeted by arsonists) and Natural Science Club of the School of Vasa (Constructing the Yule-Goat). Only two years later, the goat had met such repute that English bookmakers took up the challenge of the goat burning and ever since it has been possible to bet on whether or not the goat will burn. As the renown of the goat rose so did the police efforts to secure it. Whilst in 1990 volunteers had guarded the goat, by 1996 the first web cameras had been installed and it was now possible to follow the destiny of the goat online. The fame of the goat was such that in 2001, an American from New Orleans, having taken the burnings of the goat as a permitted tradition decided to torch it. A civilian caught him almost immediately and the police had to rescue him from the wrath of the people of Gävle.[5] The man later received a fine of 100 000 Swedish crowns (approx. $15,000) and a month in jail.[6]

Apart from the attempts at destruction by fire the most notable attack on the goat came in 2010, when two unknown men offered the goat’s guard 50 000 Swedish crowns (approx. $7,500) to leave the goat for a few minutes. The plan was to kidnap the goat and by helicopter bring it to Stureplan in Stockholm.[7]

Whilst flame-retardants have been used for some years, including this year, the goat has burnt to the ground for the last three years. In the Facebook group ‘Vi som vill bränna Gävle-bocken’ ('We who want to burn the Gävle-goat'), a comment appeared just a day before its destruction. “All who have guessed that the goat would burn today, maybe it is time to take matters into your own hands?”[8] A few hours later the goat was in flames. From its twitter account the Gävle-Goat announced “I'm so sad my friends that I have to leave you now! Thank you for this year! Take care and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”[9]

[1] "Mytologi (Nordisk)". Nordisk familjebok, 1913. Read 23 December 2013
[2] Karin Schager, Julbocken i folktro och jultradition, (1989)
[3] Caroline Lagercrantz,, (26 Jan 2007), Read 23 December 2013
[5] Dennis Larsson, (24 Dec 2001), Read 23 December 2013
[6] Josefin Karlsson & Niklas Eriksson, (21 Dec 2013), Read 23 December 2013
[9], Read 23 December 2013

Further Reading:
"Mytologi (Nordisk)". Nordisk familjebok, 1913. Karin Schager, Julbocken i folktro och jultradition, (1989)
Karlsson, Josefin & Niklas Eriksson, (21 Dec 2013)

The YouTube video above is from Gävlebocken 2012.