Meet the Gävlebocken, Sweden’s Christmas goat that dies a thousand deaths

Meet the Gävlebocken, Sweden’s Christmas goat that dies a thousand deaths

The Gävlebocken, or the Gävle Goat, is a 42.5-foot-tall goat made entirely out of straw that resides in the town square of Gävle, Sweden for part of each winter. Each year, you can place bets on its survival.

To the descendants of the somewhat mysterious early Scandinavians and earlier Germanic people of northern Europe, the Yule Goat is the true symbol of Christmas. In the ancient land of Thor the goat reigns supreme, in part because Thor traveled around in a goat-drawn chariot. If that doesn’t sound crazy fierce enough for the God of Thunder, the goats’ names were Tanngrisnir (snarler) and Tanngnjóstr (teeth-grinder). The goats feature in many stories about Thor, including the fact that he routinely ate them for dinner and did something with his hammer that brought them back to life the next day.

In the town of Gävle in Southern Sweden in 1966, someone had the idea to build a giant straw Yule Goat during the holiday season as a lure for tourists. As the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come”…and try to burn it down over and over again. The first goat made it until New Year’s Eve, which compared to some of its successors would prove a long and happy life. The goat in 1970 was burned down after just six hours.

In 1971 the organizers abandoned the goat project after too many fire-related incidents. Another group started building a much smaller goat, which was also lit aflame repeatedly and hit by a car one year. In 1986 both groups built goats, and have done so every year since. In 1988, Las Vegas oddsmakers started taking bets on when and how the goat would be destroyed each year. Fences, taxis, volunteers and the Swedish Home Guard have all been deployed to protect the goats—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. In 1989, the larger of the two goats was burned down before it was even finished being assembled.

Gavlebocken 2 copy

Webcams were installed around the goat in 1996 and prevented the worst for two years, until the goat was burned down in 1998 despite a blizzard. The goat has been torched in years even when treated with flame retardant or soaked with fire hoses to encase it in ice. In my personal favorite of the elaborate and intoxicated kill-goat schemes, mysterious figures dressed as Santa and a gingerbread man shot a flaming arrow at the goat on December 5, 2005 at 9:00 p.m. Incredibly, it worked.

Now firmly established in the 21st century the goat blogs, tweets, and is on Instagram. The goat uses its new social media accounts to plead for his life; his Twitter bio reads, “I’m the biggest straw goat in the world, follow my struggle to survive arson attacks.” Tempers flare each year as the goat’s fans get in heated online debates over whether the destruction of the goat is justified. The goat’s coming-out party is held each year on Advent Sunday and tradition dictates that he remain in the square until the New Year. Much of the attention the goat garners, though, is based on the cat-and-mouse game that would-be attackers play with the goat’s defenders.

My own family is split on the issue. The GoatCam is my home page throughout the month of December, and while I’ll fully admit to loving the anticipation of how and when the goat will go up in flames, we get really attached to that big straw ungulate. So much so that several years ago my parents contacted real live Swedes in Galve to obtain stuffed miniature “Little Brother” goats for my sister and me. The proceeds of the sales of the stuffed goats go toward the Web maintenance and general goat defense.

My goats spend the month hanging out in my living room, draped with black sashes in the event of their big brother’s demise. While my own little herd of goats make the season merry, it’s just not the same after seeing the charred frame of the former goat in the cold Swedish square. As the Gävlebocken continues to gain more and more international acclaim, what chance does it stand against the combined efforts of a world of conspirators? Seeing as the last time the goat made it to New Year was in 2010, places his odds of surviving the current year at 1 in 40.

God speed, Christmas Goat. We’ll be watching.

Lisa Olson