Every year, the Central Swedish municipality of Gävle plays out a modern tradition. At the beginning of Advent, the city erects a giant Yule goat made from straw, known as the Gävlebocken, to mark the festive season.
Then local citizens try to burn it down.
Part of the game, perhaps, is that city officials never seem to get the joke. Arsonists who do get caught have been arrested and even put before a magistrate on vandalism charges.
But there are plenty of others who want to see it burn. In fact, arson is as old as the goat itself. It all began with the very first Gävlebocken, constructed in 1966, which was burned down in a surprise attack on New Year’s Eve. Since then, 38 of Gävle’s straw goats have met a fiery end.
The tradition really kicked off in 1969, when Gävle’s goat was again burned down on New Year’s Eve. It was then burned or destroyed every year until 1981.
Miniature goats were made some years, because no-one wanted to fund a giant goat with such a short lifespan. Some of the miniature goats were stolen, in homage to an old Swedish Yule tradition where families secretly place a small straw goat inside a neighbour’s home. So the tradition goes, the pranked family can only remove the goat by hiding it in another neighbour’s home.
But since the 80s, officialdom has made a resurgence in Gävle. A rivalry between Gävle’s science and merchants’ clubs led to a 15m high Yule goat making the Guinness Book of Records in 1993. A contingent of local reservists and taxi drivers organised to defend it, and the goat survived both 1993 and five of the next 10 years.
Since 2016, the municipality has sought to turn the Gävle goat into a commercial event, a regular corporate-sponsored Christmas market type of thing for this largely unnoticed Swedish town.
The move included a social media account for the goat. But even the account manager is on this two-sided theatre, sometimes appearing to goad locals to burn “him” down.
Here is a recent pic from the account, featuring redactions “for security reasons.”
But executing modern-day pranksterism is no joke. These days the goat is reportedly guarded by two rows of fencing, paid security guards and cameras, with a taxi rank set up nearby and bright lighting in the entire area.
Plan 2016 seemed to work until the Gävlebocken was finally burned down again in 2021. The fire brigade was called to the scene around a quarter to 4 on Friday morning, but by then it was too late. “It’s just a week before Christmas,” said a city official in apparent sincerity, “and I cannot understand how a person can carry out this kind of attack to a Christmas symbol known all over the world.”
As Alan Watts once put it, the squares are the ones who are really far out.
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