Who Got Gavle's Goat?Opinion
OPINION—My great grandfather emigrated from Sweden to America on a cattle boat, so I’ve always been kind of interested in Swedish stuff. I’m not excessive about it – I’ve never traveled to Sweden, or actually done any research or anything, but if I happen to see a news story about Sweden I might read it. Or not. No use going overboard.
But sometimes something happens in Sweden that piques my interest, especially if it involves animals, or Christmas, or incendiary devices. So a story sent to me a while back by my research department, Pat Wentworth, caught my eye. I intended to write about it back during Christmas, but I never got around to it. And if I wait until next Christmas I’ll forget it again. So.
For over 50 years now the town of Gavle, Sweden has enjoyed a Christmas tradition. They build a Yule Goat in the middle of town, on Slottstorget Square. But not just any Yule Goat. Gavle doesn’t do things halfway. Gavle’s Yule Goat is made of straw, and stands about 40 feet tall. This is a serious Yule Goat, as Yule Goats go.
You may be wondering what a Yule Goat is, and why the residents of Gavle want one, or what a goat has to do with Christmas to begin with. Well, you can keep on wondering, because I have no idea. I do know that your top quality, extra large Yule Goats don’t come cheap. Gavle spends about $250,000 every year building the goat. Well, they don’t spend dollars, being Swedish. They spend kronors. But the city of Gavle drops about 2.3 million kronors on the goat, which comes out to a quarter of a million bucks. Obviously, the residents of Gavle place great value on their Yule Goat. Or else this is another case of city officials grossly misusing tax revenue.
Anyway, the Yule Goat, as intriguing as it is, isn’t the story. The story is what happens to the Yule Goat every year. It seems Gavle can’t protect its goat. Every year, someone destroys the goat. Usually it’s burned, but not always. During this five-decade tradition, Gavle’s Yule Goat has only survived through the season 14 times. Lately it usually goes up in smoke within a day or two of its completion.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Well, if they don’t want their goat torched, they should put guards on it.” Please try not to be so naïve. They do put guards on it. But someone always manages to attack the goat anyway. And since the goat is made of straw it’s highly flammable. That’s one of the downsides of building a goat out of straw. I guess.
After the 2016 Yule Goat was burned, a spokesperson for the goat’s organizers, Maria Wallberg, said, “There will be a great, great sadness for Gavle residents, the Gavle goat, and for all of its fans over the world.” So the folks in Gavle evidently don’t want their goat burned, which is not surprising, being as how they spend some big bucks on it. But for some reason they expect to be able to keep it from being destroyed, which they don’t seem to be good at. At all.
Gavle’s first goat was built in 1966, and the guy in charge of it was Jorgen Gavlen. Jorgen’s brother, Stig, suggested the huge goat, and Jorgen got the job. The funny thing is that Jorgen was the town’s Fire Chief. Which seems kind of ironic. Or maybe prophetic.
Gavle’s Yule Goat has gained international attention, mostly because of its repetitive misfortune. And the vandals have often tried to do their work in innovative ways. In 1976 a student drove a customized Volvo into the goat’s rear legs, causing it to fall down. In 1998 someone burned the goat during a major blizzard. You think it’s easy, burning a huge goat during a blizzard? Well, it’s not. The 2005 goat was set ablaze with a flaming arrow, which was shot by some vandals wearing Santa Claus and gingerbread costumes. T’was the season.
An American artist named Lawrence Jones lit the 2001 goat, and he didn’t even try to avoid apprehension. Police caught him standing beside the goat, watching it burn, with the incriminating lighter still in his hand. His story was that his Swedish friends had told him that torching the straw goat was a perfectly acceptable Swedish tradition. I guess it’s not always a good idea to trust your Swedish friends.
The most interesting attempted goaticide occurred in 2010, when a couple of guys offered one of the guards a bribe of 50,000 kronors ($7,350) to make himself scarce, so they could airlift the goat out with a helicopter. They planned to haul it to Stureplan, in central Stockholm. I guess that was more of a goatknapping than goaticide. But still, impressive.
If I lived in Gavle I’d think seriously about abandoning a tradition that cost big bucks, especially if it never lasted more than a day or two before being conflagrated. It’s either that or start a new Christmas tradition – the amazingly expensive Annual Yule Goat Bonfire Tradition.
Actually, I think they’ve already got a jump on that one, involuntarily . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and minister who always wears a gingerbread suit while shooting flaming arrows. Write to him at [email protected]