The Gävle goat is a traditional Christmas display in Sweden. It is erected annually at Slottstorget in central Gävle. It is a giant version of a traditional Swedish Yule Goat figure made of straw. It is erected each year on the first day of Advent over a period of two days by local community groups. The goat has become a symbol for the city and is being used for various marketing purposes.
What’s Yule goat?
The Yule goat’s origins might go as far back as pre-Christian times. A popular theory 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, their names were: Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. The last sheaf of grain bundled in the harvest was credited with magical properties as the spirit of the harvest and saved for the Yule celebrations, called among other things Yule goat. A man-sized goat figure is known from 11th-century remembrances of Childermas, 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 Sweden, people regarded the Yule goat as an invisible spirit that would appear some time before Christmas to make sure that the Yule preparations were done right. Objects made out of straw or roughly-hewn wood could also be called the Yule goat, and in older Scandinavian society a popular Christmas prank was to place this Yule goat in a neighbor’s house without them noticing; the family successfully pranked had to get rid of it in the same way.
The function of the Yule goat has differed throughout the ages. In a Scandinavian custom similar to the English tradition of wassailing, held at either Christmas or Epiphany, young men in costumes would walk between houses singing songs, enacting plays and performing pranks. This tradition is known from the 17th century and continued in places into the early 20th century. The group of Christmas characters would often include the Yule goat, a rowdy and sometimes scary creature demanding gifts. During the 19th century the Yule goat’s role all over Scandinavia shifted towards becoming the giver of Christmas gifts, with one of the men in the family dressing up as the Yule goat. There might be a relation to Santa Claus and the Yule goat’s origin in the medieval celebrations of Saint Nicholas. The goat was then replaced by the Father Christmas/Santa Claus during the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, although he is still called the Yule goat in Finland, but the tradition of the man-sized goat disappeared.
The Yule goat in Scandinavia today is best known as a Christmas ornament. This modern version of the Yule goat figure is a decorative goat, made out of straw and bound with red ribbons, a popular Christmas ornament often found under or on the Christmas tree.
A large version of this ornament are frequently erected not only in Gävle but also in other towns and cities around Christmas time. The tradition started in 1966. An advertising consultant,-Stig Gavlén,-came up with the idea of making a giant version of the traditional Swedish Yule Goat and placing it in the square. The design of the first goat was assigned to the then chief of the Gävle fire department, Gavlén’s brother Jörgen Gavlén. The construction of the goat was carried out by the fire department, and they erected the goat each year from 1966 to 1970 and from 1986 to 2002. The first goat on 1 December 1966 was a 13-metre (43 ft) tall, 7-metre (23 ft) long, 3-tonne goat was erected in the square. On New Year’s Eve, the goat was burnt down.
The unfortunate fate of the straw goat
The goat has since its existence had a history of being burnt almost every year. However burning the goat is an illegal act and not welcomed by most citizens of Gävle, but undoubtedly this is what has made the goat famous. The display has become notable for being a recurring target for vandalism by arson, and has been destroyed several times since the first goat was erected in 1966. Because the fire station is close to the location of the goat, most of the time the fire can be extinguished before the wooden skeleton is severely damaged. If the goat is burned down before December 13th, the feast day of Saint Lucia, the goat has been rebuilt. The skeleton is then treated and repaired, and the goat reconstructed over it, using straw which the Goat Committee has pre-ordered. From 1988 onward, English bookmakers took bets on the goat’s survival. To date four people have been caught or convicted for vandalizing the goat. In 1996, the Southern Merchants introduced camera surveillance to monitor the goat 24 hours a day. On 27 November of 2004 the Gävle Goat’s homepage was hacked into and one of the two official webcams changed One year, while security guards were posted around the goat in order to prevent further vandalism, the temperature dropped far below zero. As the guards ducked into a nearby restaurant to escape the cold, the vandals struck.
During the weekend of 3–4 December 2005 a series of attacks on public Yule Goats across Sweden were carried out; The Gävle Goat was burnt on 3 December. The Visby goat on Gotland burned down, the Yule Goat in Söderköping, Östergötland was torched, and there was an attack on a goat located in Lycksele, Västerbotten. The Christmas season of 2006 marked the 40th anniversary of the Gävle Goat, and, on Sunday 3 December, the city held a large celebration in honor of the goat. The Goat Committee fireproofed the goat with “Fiber ProTector Fireproof”, a fireproofing substance that is used in airplanes. In earlier years when the goat had been fireproofed, the dew had made the liquid drip off the goat. To prevent this from happening in 2006, “Fireproof ProTechtor Solvent Base” was applied to the goat. In 2010 it was kidnapped by a helicopter.
Despite their efforts, the goat has been destroyed a total of 28 times up until the most recent incident on 27 December 2015 where the goat was torched by vandals once again.
The cost for the 1966’s goat was SEK 10,000. The price tag for constructing the goat in 2005 was around 100,000 SEK. The city pays one-third of the cost while the Southern Merchants pay the remaining sum.