The Gävle Goat

The Yule Goat Goes Big

The Gävle Goat

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In a city of Sweden named Gävle (pronounced yeh-vleh), a Christmas tradition has attracted much attention. A 42-foot high straw goat, termed the Gävle Goat, is erected each year but often meets an unfortunate fate before the end of Advent.

In 1966, an advertising consultant had the idea to take the traditional straw Yule goat that is often found among Christmas tree decorations and make it bigger. How much bigger? Well, in this case, 43 feet tall. It was placed in Castle Square, a shopping district of Gävle, Sweden in order to attract more people to that part of the city.  The giant straw goat, erected on the first Sunday of Advent, stood until New Year’s Eve when it was burned down in an act of vandalism.

The next year, another goat was built, and it became a tradition. Throughout the years, the Gävle goat has ranged from 6.6 feet high to 49 feet tall. This 1993 goat is still featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest straw goat ever constructed. While the first giant straw goat was constructed by the fire department, subsequent buildings have been done by the Southern Merchants (a group of businessmen) or by the Natural Science Club of the School of Vasa. Since 2003 the actual construction has been done by a group of unemployed workers even though it is still sponsored in part by the city and the rest by the Southern Merchants. Since 1986, both groups have constructed a large straw goat, so both are displayed in different sections of Castle Square.

On the first Sunday of Advent which falls in either late November or early December, the Gävle Goat is inaugurated. The skeleton is made of Swedish pine, and 1,600 meters of rope, are used in tying the straw to the skeleton. 1,000 hours of work go into its construction. It is finally wrapped with red ribbon, and the finished product weighs 3.6 tons. Every year, tens of thousands of people gather to Castle Square to see the giant Yule goat. With such a crowd, they highly encourage visitors to utilize local public transportation, especially on the inauguration day. According to Maria Wallberg, spokesperson for the goat, “It’s a tradition every year on the first Sunday in Advent for the Gävle Goats inauguration. There are between 12,000 to 15,000 people in the audience and a lot of people are also visiting the show on the livestream.”

Gävle Goat. Photo by Daniel Bernstål.

While a giant straw goat is quite the sight to see, that is not the only reason why people flock to Castle Square and follow the Gävle Goat online. You see, the Gävle Goat has been burned down at least 28 out of the 53 years that the tradition has been followed. Being made of straw, it is naturally very flammable despite being located a more two minutes away from the fire department. It has been destroyed by other acts of vandalism six times, including being hit by a car in 1976. One year, men dressed as Santa Claus and a gingerbread man shot flaming arrows into the Yule goat to set it on fire. Another year, people attempted to bribe a security guard into letting them use a helicopter to kidnap the goat and transport it to Stockholm. The guard refused. Regarding the fated destruction of the goat, Ms. Wallberg says, “I think the tradition or standard came already the first year in 1966 when the Gävle Goat was set on fire on New Year’s Eve. After that, the Gävle Goat has been attacked more than it has been kept safe.” The fate of the Gävle Goat has become the subject of many bets, even in British betting agencies.

While burning the Gävle Goat down or otherwise destroying it seems to be part of the tradition, the city of Gävle really does try to prevent the Yule goat’s destruction. It is actually illegal to burn or otherwise destroy the straw goat. Throughout the years, security has been built and added upon to where they have a double fence, security guards, and webcam on 24 hours per day (however, it was hacked during one successful burning). In addition to these measures, the goat is often doused with fire-retardant solutions. On the 50th anniversary of the Gävle Goat, it was set on fire less than 24 hours after its inauguration. Fortunately, perhaps even miraculously, the goat has survived the last three years in a row. When the goat does survive, the straw is taken to a local heat plant and the skeleton is dismantled to be reused the next year.

Even though the giant Yule goat may seem to be more effort than it is worth, the city of Gävle really is quite proud of their goat. It is a beloved tradition, plus it brings a lot of tourists and business to the area. Ms. Wallberg says, “The tradition means a lot to the city of Gävle. For the inhabitants, the visitors, and of course the city business. It’s a world-famous Christmas symbol that traditionally builds up every year before Christmas.” It is different from the oft-used Christmas tree, so it is interesting.

Gävle Goat. Photo by Daniel Bernstål.

The Gävle Goat has a strong social media following where you can watch the webcam and receive updates on whether or not the goat is still standing. How long will the giant Yule goat last this year? Are you making any bets?

Originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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