If there ever were a year for an arson-prone Christmas display to go up in flames, you’d think 2017 would have been it.
Yet for some strange and cosmically reassuring reason, the habitually torched Gävle Goat — a festive, 40-foot-tall straw mammal built annually in its namesake Swedish port city to mark the beginning of Advent — survived a year widely regarded as a 365-day dumpster fire without being licked by a single flame.
This is remarkable considering that in the 51 years this oversized Yule goat has been erected as a symbol of holiday cheer by the people of Gävle, it's been intentionally obliterated by fire — and subject to other acts of maliciousness including being drunkenly dismembered, rammed with a Volvo and straight-up assaulted — in 36 of those years. That’s a roughly 71 percent chance of destruction. Some years, the Gävle Goat — or Gävlebocken — doesn’t making it even close to Christmas.
Oh no, such a short amount of time with you my friends. 😢 But I shall rise from the ashes and see you next year again!— Gävlebocken (@Gavlebocken) November 27, 2016
Last year, for example, the Gävle Goat was set ablaze on Nov. 27, the very same day it was unveiled — and on its 50th anniversary. (A smaller replica was built as a replacement, only to be plowed over by car a short time later.) In 2015, the colossal effigy, which weighs nearly 4 metric tons and is bound with red ribbon, lasted a full month longer, until Dec. 27, when it fell victim to an inebriated local who was caught fleeing the scene with a gas can and a lighter.
The highly flammable yuletide display did survive 2014 — and before that, 2010, 2002 and a few scattered years in the 1980s and 90s — but only after a small handful of arson attempts. And even during years when proactive measures (i.e. dousing the goat in flame retardant) were taken to ensure that the Gävle Goat suffered no harm, it still somehow managed to be tragically and very publicly immolated.
So why — and how — did one of the world’s most iconic arson targets emerge untouched and unscathed from a year when, by all means, it shouldn’t have? What made 2017 different?
More cameras, higher fences and new beginnings for former criminals
It’s nice to think that 2017 was the year that all potential vandals and arsonists experienced some kind of epiphany and decided there were better ways to spend their time than getting sloshed and burning down a giant straw goat.
But the secret to the Gävle Goat’s relative longevity during the 2017 holiday season likely boils down to a 24/7 webcam, higher double protective fences and, last but not least, a new security detail — specifically, a new security detail comprised of former convicts, per National Geographic.
This isn't the first time that Southern Merchants, the local business association that puts on the display most years, has employed private security guards to protect the Gävle Goat. Historically, however, the results have been mixed.
Take, for example, 2004, when the watchmen tasked with minding Gävlebocken slipped inside a local bar for a quick warm-me-up in sub-zero temps and returned to find their charge set aflame by arsonists just waiting for an opportune moment to strike. And all this happened after the official Gävle Goat webcam was hacked. The next year, part-time security guards were no match for a mysterious assailant dressed as a gingerbread man who shot flaming arrows at the goat.
2017 was the first year that organizers enlisted members of X-Cons — a nonprofit established in Stockholm in 2008 that helps put reformed criminals and addicts on the straight and narrow — to guard the Gävle Goat.
That seemed to do the trick, with perhaps a little more help.
“We will have cameras and two security guards in place. We have also put up double fences around the goat, which we hope will make it harder for those who want to carry out sabotage,” Maria Wallberg, a spokesperson for Gävle municipality, told Swedish news agency TT shortly after the 2017 display’s debut on Dec. 3. When asked if there were any additional security measures in place, Wallberg took the cryptic route by responding: “It’s secret.”
2017: When a straw goat beat the odds
Reformed cons and covert security operations aside, local business owners and city officials are delighted and probably a bit surprised that 2017 was a rare year of survival for the Gävle Goat. Originally conceived as a marketing gimmick to boost holiday retail ac tivit y in and around the historic Slottstorget (Castle Square), the straw goat takes upward of 1,000 hours to construct and is a massive tourist draw for Gävle, a mid-sized city located about 100 miles north of Stockholm. Aside from yuletide arson, Gävle is best known for its hockey team and for being the birthplace of Gevalia coffee.
“It's great that he has been left standing for so long, and I hope he lasts through New Year's,” said Wallberg after the display miraculously persevered past Christmas Day. “I really believe in stopping these spur-of-the-moment attacks which happen at night when people are on their way home from the pub.”
(To be clear, locals are usually responsible for the acts of vandalism, with one notable exception. In 2001, an American tourist was duped into torching the effigy, thinking that he was partaking in a unique Swedish custom, not a dispiriting criminal act. He was subsequently arrested and jailed.)
Wallberg adds: “The fires are not that good for Gävle because many people come here just to see the goat. There are a lot of cancellations once it burns.”
As we commence a brand new year, it’s helpful to view the Gävle Goat as an unlikely source of inspiration. If an oversized straw Christmas goat from Sweden that’s pretty much destroyed every year can survive 2017, then there’s hope for us all. Here’s hoping Gävle Goat defies the odds this year, too.
And for more on the annual tradition of erecting — and more often that not, destroying — Gävlebocken, be sure to give "Killing Gävle," an excellent new short documentary from The Guardian, a watch.