The giant burning goat of Sweden

by Jack R

Since moving to Sweden I have had the joy and hilarity of learning about some of the oddest cultural quirks and national traditions you could possibly imagine. Perhaps the most fantastic of all of these “traditions” is the nearly annual destruction of Sweden’s largest straw goat, a tradition made all the more beautiful by the fact that it is completely illegal.

A typical Gävle goat – photo: wikimedia

Straw goats are a common sight in Sweden in the run up to Christmas, with knee or waist high straw goats being common decorations outside shops or restaurants and smaller ones serving as popular tabletop decorations. The town of Gävle, however, has taken it upon themselves to one-up this tradition by constructing straw goats up to a height of 14.9 metres and weighing over 3 tons, so large that they have even held Guinness world records.

The idea of constructing the giant goat to mark advent was first thought up in 1966 by Stig Gävlén, an advertising consultant, who then passed the task of building the goat onto his brother Jörgen and, somewhat ironically, the local fire department. This first goat lasted until New Years Eve, when it went up in flames at the stroke of midnight. The town has continued to build them yearly since with 28 of the towns giant goats successfully burnt down over the years, with several more suffering attempted arson or other damage to them.

Burnt down to its metal frame – photo: Herald Sun

Naturally the council of Gävle have taken increased measures to protect their famous giant goat as the tradition has continued, this has included hiring security guards, installing surveillance cameras and even fireproofing the straw once the goat has been built. Yet such measures have often failed to stop the arsonists from succeeding in their goal of burning down the goat, who often do so by using a variety of humorous and inspired tactics – 2005, for example, saw the goat burnt down by two people dressed as Santa Claus and the gingerbread man, with the use of a bow and a flaming arrow. The only thing protecting the goat in 2010 was a guards honesty, after he was offered 50,000 kronor (around 5000 pounds) to turn his back and allow two men to steal the entire structure with the use of a helicopter.

The town of Gävle, especially its authorities, consistently reinforce the statement that they believe it is a “shame” that the goat is consistently attacked and burnt down, as well as reminding the public that anyone caught attempting to destroy the goat will be punished. Despite this, there is absolutely no doubt that in reality the town, and in fact the majority of Sweden, treat the repeating arson as a joke and an amusing tradition. This is shown by the fact that since 1988 it has actually been possible to place a bet on which day you think the goat will burn down and since 1996 giant straw goat enthusiasts and arsonists alike are able to watch the goat go up in flames live on webcam. Except for the year 2009, when the webcams were actually put out of service by hackers shortly before the goat was set alight.

A picture of four men sporting burning goat tattoos, complete with dates, was posted online following the 2012 goat being burnt - photo: Flashback

A picture of four men sporting burning goat tattoos, complete with dates, was posted online following the 2012 goat being burnt – photo: Flashback

This year, the goat is to be fireproofed for only the third time in its history. The method has not been popular with local people in the past as the fireproofing liquid turns the straw a dark brown colour, however the council claims to have found a type of fire retardant which will not change the colour of the goat from its natural straw colour. It is impossible to tell whether the goat will be burnt down this year, but we can be sure that the tradition of trying to torch the giant goats will continue as long as the town of Gävle chooses to keep on building them. 

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