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This Colossal Goat Sculpture Is a Swedish Tradition, and Almost Every Year It Goes Up in Flames

Since the 1960s, the city of Gävle in Sweden has annually built a towering Yule goat, and almost every year someone burns it down.

The Gävle goat in 2006 (photo by Stefan, via Wikimedia)
The Gävle Goat in 2006 (photo by Stefan/Wikimedia)

Ever since an entrepreneurial Swede had the idea in 1966 to build a giant Yule goat in Gävle to attract shoppers to the southern part of the city, there have been people intent on burning it down. This year’s colossal straw goat will be dedicated on December 3, the first day of Advent, and it will be erected with an extra secure fence and around-the-clock safety and security precautions with the hope that 2017 will be a year it evades the flames.

Charred remains of the Natural Science Club's Yule Goat, with the larger Gävle goat in the background (2006) (photo by Stefan/Wikimedia)
Charred remains of the Natural Science Club’s Yule Goat, with the larger Gävle goat in the background (2006) (photo by Stefan/Wikimedia)

From straw hooves to curving horns, it takes 1,000 hours of work to construct the goat in Gävle’s Castle Square, where it stands at more than 40 feet tall. Recognized as the world’s largest straw goat sculpture, the Gävle Goat, or Gävlebocken as it’s called in Swedish, has been attacked over 30 times during its half a century of holiday appearances. The official Gävle Goat website has a whole timeline of its unlucky ends, including being burned for the first time in 1969, imploding in 1972 “due to sabotage,” being “smashed into pieces” in 1978, set on fire before its construction was finished in 1989, torched on Christmas morning in 1995, and having its webcam hacked while arsonists set it aflame in 2009. In 2001, an American tourist took a lighter to it, thinking it was a legal tradition (he received 18 days in prison and a fine, which was not paid); and in 2010, two men attempted to steal it away by helicopter. Michelle Enemark at Atlas Obscura created a graphic timeline which scrolls through its often unfortunate fates.

Still from the Gävle goat webcam (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Still from the 2017 Gävle Goat webcam (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
A Yule goat on a Christmas card (by Jenny Nyström, via Wikimedia)
A Yule goat on a Christmas card (by Jenny Nyström, via Wikimedia)

But why is there a goliath goat effigy in the first place? The Yule goat in Scandinavian Christmas festivities is one of those pagan traces that remain attached to the holidays. Usually made on a much smaller scale from straw as a decorative ornament, the Yule goat has also appeared as companion to Saint Nicholas, alternately showing how he has control over this devilish creature, or portraying the goat as a friendly carrier of gifts. IKEA even stocks a Yule goat, although a larger version set up outside their store in Iceland went up in flames last year.

As of this writing, the Gävle Goat in Sweden is still surviving in its 51st year, and actively sharing updates on its Twitter account. Last year, it was burned to its Swedish pine skeleton just hours after its debut. A smaller companion goat, which is annually built by the local Natural Science Club, took its place, only to be run over by a car. You can watch videos below of these calamities taken from its webcam, which is online again to livestream its 2017 appearance.

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