Sweden’s Giant Goat Has Survived Burning, Shooting And Kidnapping. Can It Now Fight Off The Birds?

January 5th, 2024
Sweden’s Giant Goat Has Survived Burning, Shooting And Kidnapping. Can It Now Fight Off The Birds?

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a 40-foot tall goat in Sweden, desperately just trying to survive Christmas without something really terrible happening to you. 

I know, this isn’t one of my most coherent opening lines of anything I’ve written. You may be extremely confused, and rightly so - what follows is something that attracts headlines in all the major news services of the world, without fail, every single year, because it’s so weird, so gently tragic and…how can I put this…so deeply Swedish.

The Cologne Christmas Market is an unforgettable place to celebrate the holiday

The Cologne Christmas Market is an unforgettable place to celebrate the holiday

Gävle is a city of roughly 75,000 souls on the eastern coast of Sweden (the name seems to come from the Old Swedish for “riverbank”). Over its roughly 600 year history, it’s been the scene of a number of huge fires, including one in 1869 that gutted 350 farms and made 8,000 of its inhabitants homeless. For Gävle, fire is an ever-present threat - and this is most true for its most internationally famous landmark, which only makes an appearance at the end of each year. 

It’s a fascinating thing just how different the yuletide traditions of other countries can be, compared to your own. While Brits like me are used to the idea of a ruddy-cheeked, mince-pie-clutching Santa clambering up and down our chimneys in the dead of night, Icelandic children, on the other hand, have Jólakötturinn to look forward to - a huge cat that roams the countryside, hunting and devouring children that haven’t displayed the good manners to be wearing the new clothes they got for Christmas. Just lovely. 

Sweden’s chosen Yuletide animal is the goat - a tradition going back at least a thousand years and linked to Norse & Germanic paganism. Across Sandinavia, it’s common to see little goats made of straw or whittled from wood, hanging off Christmas trees or affixed to fireplaces. 

In 1966, ambitious advertising executive Stig Gavlén figured he could do much better. Working with his brother Jörgen, the chief of Gävle’s fire department, he built a 13-metre (43 ft) tall depiction of the Yule Goat from a wooden frame clad in straw, and placed it in the city’s central square for all to marvel at.

A few days later on New Year’s Eve, someone had an even more ambitious idea: they’d celebrate the start of the new year by doing away with the biggest symbol of the old one - the Gävle goat. They successfully set it alight (not hard, considering it was covered in straw) and the whole thing burned to the ground, after which they were promptly arrested for vandalism. Luckily - or perhaps suspiciously, if you have that kind of mind - the cost of constructing the goat was covered by insurance, and the wealthy backer of Gavlén’s project got his money back. Everyone wins! (Except the goat.)

From here onwards, it all gets a bit Monty Python. In 1969, after a few relatively quiet years, the Gävle goat once again burnt to the ground on New Year’s Eve - and again the following year, and the year after that, in an unbroken run until 1981. Then, with the whole thing occupying the ground somewhere between a source of pride and a total farce, the local authorities stepped in: not only did an unusually sturdy specimen some 15 metres high make the Guinness Book of Records in 1993, the goat also acquired its own defense force, made of local reservists and taxi drivers. It was a success: the goat survived both 1993 and five of the next ten years.

In Sweden, goats used to face a risk to their lives during Christmas

In Sweden, goats used to face a risk to their lives during Christmas

Despite these measures, the arson attacks kept getting through - usually safely & quickly dealt with by the city’s by-now highly experienced fire department, but rarely quick enough to save the goat once it started smouldering. In 1996, the merchants in charge of building & maintaining the goat introduced 24-hour camera surveillance. The attackers stepped up their game: on 27 November 2004, the Gävle Goat's homepage was hacked, and one of the two official webcams changed to provide a distraction.

Another year, while the goat’s security guards had ducked into a nearby restaurant to escape an unusually bitter  cold snap, the goat arsonists struck again. In 2005, two attackers — one dressed as Santa Claus and the other as a gingerbread man — shot it with burning arrows. In 2010, someone unsuccessfully attempted to steal it with a helicopter. 

Cut to the present. In 2022, it escaped New Year intact, after the previous one went up in flames in 2021, despite a host of new measures including fire-retardant coatings and even more security. But this year, it’s meeting a new threat from a wholly unexpected direction.

The straw harvest season for eastern Sweden was particularly rain-sodden this year, so it was unusually difficult for the farmers to extract the grain out of the straw before they packed it into the goat’s structural framework. As a result, this year’s Gävle goat is essentially a straw-clad bird feeder. Many birds, including jackdaws, have started roosting on & within the goat and tearing parts of it to shreds in search of their next meal.

The "Gävle Goat", made of straw,"

The "Gävle Goat", made of straw

But for the official goat spokesperson Anna-Karin Niemann, it’s all part of the fun: 

"On the first day the Christmas goat was up, we saw the birds. And at that moment we decided that we wouldn't scare them…to scare them wouldn't feel like the Christmas spirit, and that's the Christmas goat's purpose….

We got so many emails and phone calls,"  Niemann said. "They think it's positive that the Christmas goat … gets a new purpose. And they say, 'Let the birds eat.' “

Hang in there, Gävle goat. You can do this, birds or no birds. Here’s all of us praying for a spot of New Year rain.

(UPDATE: It survived!) 

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