As those who have spent time in and around Scandinavia (or an IKEA store) around the holiday season can tell you, the bleating four-legged lawnmower otherwise known as the goat is considered to be as Christmas-y as a trio of camels, a herd of nine flying reindeer, two turtle doves and a golden retriever puppy wearing a Santa hat.
And while the Yule goat — a previously terrifying holiday symbol that now takes the form of a caprine-shaped effigy made from straw and bound with red ribbon — is usually found adorning Christmas trees, the small Swedish port city of Gävle boasts a Yule goat — the Gävlebocken — that’s truly in a league of its own. Erected each year on the first Sunday of Advent in Gävle’s central square since 1966, the Gävle Goat, a straw goat sculpture standing over 40 feet tall and weighing over 3 metric tons, is a festive, tourist-snaring holiday tradition — a postcard-perfect symbol of peace, goodwill and holiday cheer.
Gävle Goat is also a magnet for destruction, deviancy and bad, no-good, not-very-Christmas-y behavior.
You see, Gävle Goat is best known for meeting an unfortunate demise, almost every year since it was first erected in 1966 after being proposed by a local adman as a way to drum up business for local shops during the holiday season. Some years, the massive sculpture, originally (and ironically) constructed by the town's fire department, makes it through Christmas and New Year’s Day without incident.
This is usually not the case.
This past year, however, was a bit different: Gävle Goat miraculously survived nary a scratch and was dismantled on Dec. 29. Shortly thereafter, it was shipped from Sweden to China where it will help to ring in the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Goat, when it begins on Feb. 19.
The very much discouraged act of murdering the Gävle Goat (faux goaticide?) dates back to its very first appearance nearly 50 years ago when it was burned to the ground by an arsonist at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.
As detailed by Atlas Obscura’s The Unfortunate Fates of the Gävle Goat Timeline, quiet years have been few and far between. On 24 occasions, arson has been the method of elimination, transforming the giant straw beast into a Wicker Man-esque fireball (minus the human sacrifice, of course).
Sometimes the Gävle Goat makes it through Christmas without being torched. Sometimes it doesn’t. On several occasions, the goat has gone up in smoke just hours after its annual unveiling. A handful of times, the goat has been burned down and replaced with a new sculpture. These replacements have been set ablaze by lighter-wielding baddies, too.
The charred remains of 1998's Gävle Goat. (Wikimedia Commons)
In addition to arson, the Gävle Goat has been assaulted by drunk people, rammed into with a Volvo, kicked at, shot at with fireworks and had its legs chopped off. In 2010, the goat escaped incineration but was the target of an attempted abduction via helicopter. The next year, it was set ablaze by a tourist from Cleveland who figured it was perfectly acceptable to commit goat arson. He was jailed for 18 days and ordered to pay a fine. In 2005, mysterious assailants dressed as the gingerbread man and Santa Claus shot flaming arrows at the oversized browsing animal.
Over the years, bullheaded but good-humored event organizers have taken numerous steps to protect the Gävle Goat, its fate the subject of many a betting pool across Europe and even online: the sculpture has been treated with an anti-flammable liquid, coated with ice, blocked-off by perimeter fences, guarded by volunteers, watched over by security cameras. Sometimes these measures work; mostly, they don’t. The fact that the Gävle Goat was dismantled this past season on Dec. 29 signals that organizers likely wanted to avoid the risk of any New Year's Eve carnage.
So what was so different about this past year? How did the Gävle Goat manage to beat the odds and not be burnt to a crisp despite numerous arson attempts? (To be clear, the sculpture was not sprayed with a flame retardant in 2014 as it has in years past).
Perhaps potential vandals found it their hearts to spare the poor creature because, after all, 2015 is its year. In 2002 and 1990, both years leading into Year of the Goat, the Gävle Goat also managed to survive. An astrological trend or just a coincidence?
The organizing committee behind the Gävle Goat believe that a 24-hour webcam, the presence of additional security personnel and the relocation of a highly trafficked taxi stand to the city’s main square as a method of discouraging potential arsonists is what did the trick.
Gavle Goat on Dec. 21, 2009. It was completely destroyed by fire two days later. (Wikimedia Commons)
Johan Adolfsson, the goat’s official spokesperson, explains the taxi tactic to English-language Swedish news website The Local: "Moving the taxis to be close to the goat has made a huge difference as there is a lot more people moving around it. That seems to have kept the arsonists at bay.”
Adolfsson goes on to addresses a couple of close calls: “There have been four possible attempts with people climbing the fence and on each occasion the people have had lighters in their pockets. We haven't drawn up a hitlist though!”
Gävle Goat 2014, a true survivor, has already arrived in Zhuhai, a touristy coastal city in China's Guangdong province, where it will remain on display until the time comes for it to be dismantled and shipped back to Sweden. Hopefully it will steer clear of errant fireworks ignited during Chinese New Year celebrations.
“We see the Gävle goat as our strongest brand and we are trying to evolve the brand year-on-year. Some people think it's us burning it every year to get PR but that isn't the case at all,” explains Adolfsson to The Local. “The goat will then come back to Sweden next September or so and we'll prepare for the Christmas period then. Let's hope it makes it through 2015 too.”
For updates on Gävle Goat’s hopefully catastrophe-free Chinese sojourn, you can follow it on its cheeky, at times harrowing blog ("I've been under attack three times, but my guards repelled every attack," reads a post from Dec. 22) blog. You can also keep tabs on the Gävle Goat on Instagram and at the 8,000 follower-strong Gävlebocken Twitter account in which the profile reads: “I’m the biggest straw goat in the world, follow my struggle to survive arson attacks.”
Related on MNN:
- In Nevada, Christmas tree recycling goes to the goats
- 2,000-pound rubber duck goes missing in Guiyang, China
- The newest feature at Sweden's Icehotel? Fire alarms