Gavle Goat and the Swedish city’s battle to stop vandals burning down their Christmas symbol
The Gavle Goat is erected each year for the first day of Advent. (Supplied: Albin Bogren/Visit Gavle)
Every year around the world, people put up Christmas trees to carry on an age old tradition.
- The Gavle Goat has only seen out a season 15 times in its 51 year history
- Some suggest Pagan followers are behind the attacks, but most are carried out by drunks
- So far this year, there hasn’t been an attempt to destroy the Gavle Goat
There will be fights over how the tree is decorated and an ongoing struggle to stop the dog or cat from knocking off the low-hanging baubles.
But in the Swedish city of Gavle there is a much bigger battle going on — keeping a 13-metre tall, seven-metre long straw goat from being destroyed.
The Gavle Goat — or Gavlebocken as it’s called in Swedish — is a large scale model of the Yule Goat, a Christmas symbol dating back to ancient Pagan festivals.
Erected each year on the first day of Advent, the Gavle Goat is now recognised as the world’s biggest straw goat and was first conceived in 1966 as a means of attracting tourists to Gavle in the festive season.
But when it was burnt down by vandals on New Year’s Eve, the simple Christmas goat took on a new status.
Now almost every year vandals make an attempt to destroy the beloved goat, which has amassed a global following of thousands on Twitter and Instagram.
And every year, the city tries to stop them.
Gavle’s battle for Christmas spirit
Since its inception the goat has only survived 15 out of 51 years, sometimes being burnt down or destroyed more than once in a season.
A tough run for Gavlebocken
- 1966 — the original goat was burnt down by vandals
- 1970 — the goat was burnt down six hours after construction, blamed on drunk teens
- 1976 — the goat was hit by a car, which led to it collapsing
- 1978 — Gavlebocken was kicked to pieces by vandals
- 2001 — the goat was burnt down by a US tourist who said he wanted to be a part of the tradition
- 2005 — the goat was burnt down by vandals dressed as Santa and gingerbread men, who lit the fire with burning arrows
- 2009 — webcam and cameras protecting the goat were hacked, helping vandals to burn down the goat undetected
- 2010 — vandals attempted to bribe a guard so they could steal the goat with a helicopter
Last year he survived unscathed.
But in the past, the Gavle Goat has faced an onslaught of attacks.
It’s been burnt down by vandals dressed as Santa and gingerbread men shooting flaming arrows, kicked to pieces by a group, and even knocked over when a car crashed into it.
In 2010, some vandals even attempted to steal the goat with a helicopter, with reports suggesting they offered a bribe to a guard to let the plan go ahead.
Official Gavlebocken spokeswoman Maria Wallberg told the ABC that the goat “means a lot to the people of Gavle”, with officials doing everything they can in an attempt to protect it.
“It’s a world-famous Christmas symbol that makes people proud,” Ms Wallberg told the ABC.
“It gets [the locals] and all the fans around the world in a great Christmas mood. There are people around the Gavle Goat all the time, taking pictures and selfies.”
To try and stop it being burnt down, incarnations of the Gavle Goat have been doused in flame retardant, or hosed with water to form an ice coating.
The quest to save Gavlebocken
- 1979 — the goat was burnt before it was even finished, a replacement goat was drenched in flame retardant, but was still destroyed
- 1985 — the Gavle Goat was guarded by security and soldiers, made the Guinness Book of Records, but was still burnt down in January
- 1996 — for the first time a webcam was focused on the goat, it survived
- 2011 — the goat was sprayed with water to create a protective ice coating, but due to warm weather the ice melted and the goat was burnt down
- 2017 — a double fence, CCTV, a webcam, security guards and a “secret” measure all helped Gavlebocken survive without a single attempt to destroy it
The city has also erected fences, placed security guards around it and installed a live webcam that broadcasts the goat online.
“Last year we started with higher and double fences. We think that makes a big difference, especially for the spontaneous attacks from drunk people,” Ms Wallberg said.
“You cant get in and out without getting caught now. Then there’s guards, cameras and dogs around the goat.”
Already this year there has been an attempt to burn down the smaller goat, referred to as Gavlebocken’s “little brother”, but the goat — which is made by the Natural Science Club of the School of Vasa — survived with only slight burns.
But no attempt has been made on the main Gavle Goat … yet.
Secret pagan society or vandal pranksters?
The reason behind the yearly attacks is somewhat of a mystery, mainly because the culprits are rarely caught.
Some reports, including a documentary released earlier this year by The Guardian, suggest that the burning is a religious battle between Christianity and Paganism, with a “secret group” of people who still closely follow Norse gods responsible for much of the burning.
According to legend, Thor would burn his goats and in the morning they would be reborn. (AKG: Max Friedrich Koch)
According to legend, Thor — who is the god of thunder in Norse lore — rode a chariot lead by two goats, which he would cook and eat each night for strength.
In the morning the goats would be reborn, ready to pull the chariot again.
The short documentary, called Killing Gavle, suggests that the group believes they must burn the goat each year in order to ensure a good harvest and the return of the sun.
But Ms Wallberg said that while the goat’s demise is sometimes a planned assault, a lot of the time it is just a group of drunks who are responsible.
“We think some attacks are planned, but the most of them are made by people getting home from a party night,” Ms Wallberg said.
“So it’s important to remind people that it’s a crime to attack the Gavle Goat.”
If the Gavle Goat can survive until the new year, it will be taken down on January 2. (Twitter: Gävlebocken)
According to the Swedish penal code, a person who destroys or damages property with great cultural importance can face up to four years in jail.
Despite the threat of prison nobody has been jailed for vandalising the goat, with the most common punishment among the few vandals caught by the police being a fine.
In 2001, police arrested 51-year-old American Lawrence Jones — who was visiting Gavle from Cleveland, Ohio — for burning down the goat.
After being held for 18 days, the court fined Mr Jones 100,000 Swedish Krona ($15,355), but he fled the country without paying the fine, according to local media.
Mr Jones’s excuse was that he believed that burning down the goat was a local tradition and that he wanted to be a part of it.
A global sensation, a local goldmine
While every year is a fight to survive, the Gavle Goat’s global popularity is an important tourism boost for the city.
Each year thousands of locals, tourists and fans of Gavlebocken attend his inauguration concert, complete with bands and fireworks in Castle Square.
Thousands more stop for a visit during the Christmas season, making it an extremely valuable attraction for Gavle.
Themed snacks, shirts and souvenirs are sold in shops, with hotels and local business owners hoping that the goat survives as long as possible to keep the tourists coming.
According to the official website, 420,000 people visited the Gavle Goat when he was on tour in the Chinese sister city of Zhuhai in 2014, dressed in a flower coat for the spring occasion.
Gavlebocken is so popular it has even had songs written about it by Swedish artists, including one by the suitably named psychedelic rock band, Goat.
According to Ms Wallberg, about 120,000 people watch the live webcam each year from more than 120 countries, waiting to see if he survives, or perishes.
“We understand that he’s famous because of the attacks, but we like him to stay all the way until we take him down on January 2,” Ms Wallberg said.
“The Gavle Goat is a travel reason and great for the city businesses, so we do everything to keep him safe so visitors can come to Gavle and look at him during Christmas and over new year.”