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23# The curious story of the Swedish Yule goat

4 min read

In Sweden there is a town that every year celebrates the start of the Christmas season by putting up a giant straw statue of a goat. Then folks wait (and sometimes bet) on whether the goat will make it to Christmas.
The reason?
The town of Gävle has another, very different, tradition: every year someone tries to burn down the goat!
But, above all…why a goat?

For hundreds of years, folks in northern Europe had big festivals in December called Yule, traditions that became part of regular Christmas celebrations in places like Sweden. And, not by chance, one of those was the Yule goat. The goat was supposed to help deliver presents, so sometimes Santa Claus would ride a goat instead of his sleigh! And, in fact, small goats made of straw are still today one of the most popular Christmas decorations in Sweden.
The Yule goat’s origins go back to ancient Pagan festivals. A popular theory, for istance, is that the celebration of the goat is connected to worship of the Norse god Thor, who rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats, while a man-sized goat figure is also known from 11th-century, where it was led by a man dressed as Saint Nicholas, symbolizing his control over the Devil. Other traditions are possibly related to the sheaf of corn called the Yule goat.

In any case, in 1966, when the town of Gävle wanted something fun and Christmas-y for the town square during holiday times, a giant Yule goat seemed like a great idea.
Well…It wasn’t.
And maybe it also wasn’t a great idea to make the giant creation out of super-flammable straw.
Though, the first Gävle goat actually made it all the way to New Year’s Eve before being burned down, despite goat statues in other years haven’t been so lucky. In fact, in the past 50 years, the Gävle Yule goat has been destroyed 35 times!
The town has tried lots of different ways to protect their goat, including guards stationed, security cameras put up, fences raised, and the goat itself has been sprayed with water and flameproof chemicals. Yes. Some years the goat even survives the whole holiday season, however, most years…it doesn’t.
An American tourist was arrested for burning down the goat in 2001, but he said he’d been told by his Swedish friends that burning the goat was okay. In any case, he ended up spending two weeks in jail.
In 2005, a group dressed as Santa and some gingerbread men fired flaming arrows into the creature while, a couple of years later, in 2009, hackers disabled the security cameras and were able to sneak in and set the goat on fire.
But, interestingly, sometimes it was not even fire that gets the goat. In 1976, someone drove a car into the back legs of the statue, that collapsed and then, in 2010, a security guard reported that he’d been offered a bribe by 2 men who were going to use a helicopter to fly away with the goat. It seems that the guard turned down the bribe, so we’ll never know if the plan would have worked.

And so…why not give up on the goat?
The town of Gävle is stubborn, and locals are proud of their Yule goat. It’s been in the Guinness Book of World Records, for its size, not the fires, and every year in December lots of people come to the city to see the goat and take part in the Yule time celebrations. Part of the reason people come may be to see how long the goat will last, and some suspect that the town secretly likes all this attention.
And, every year they promise that this goat will go the distance. 2016 was the 50th anniversary of the first Yule goat statue. It was November 27 when the statue was unveiled. However, by that night it was up in flames….

Images from web – Google Research

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