If you could only know one thing about Sweden, know this: Christmas is a big deal. A really big deal. Bigger than the Red Sox winning the World Series, or even the wedding of a certain Crown Princess this past summer.
To the casual observer, the Swedish concept of Christmas seems pretty similar to the American one: religiously, it’s still about the birth of Jesus, but mercifully absent of any little drummer boys. Radio stations play the same five songs for more than a month, and practically every grocery store has a Christmas tree lot in front of it. On Christmas Eve, stockings are often hung by the chimney with care, and Santa Claus is always making a list and checking it twice. Even Rudolph is a beloved icon.
But not everywhere in Sweden is ”Jul” so standardized. North of Stockholm, people in Gävle prefer to celebrate by burning a giant straw goat every year.
Technically, the incineration of the four-legged farm animal is illegal, but residents of the city of 70,000 usually take matters into their own hands. In 2009, the 43-foot-high goat was set aflame early in the morning before fire crews could respond.
This is nothing new in Gävle. The goat, a giant version of the traditional Jul Goat, has burned 24 times since it was first erected in 1966.
Back then, Gävle advertising consultant Stig Gavlén came up with the idea of putting a giant straw goat in the city’s Slottstorget (Castle Square). The three-ton goat, designed by Gavlén’s brother Jesper (who was also the city’s fire chief), was erected on Dec. 1. But by New Year’s Eve it was set ablaze by an unknown individual.
Since then, the goat has survived the holiday season only 10 times. In addition to its nearly annual flameout, the goat also has been smashed to pieces, run over by a car, and tossed into a river.
City officials have tried to discourage vandalism of the goat over the years, posting guards and setting up video surveillance, but their efforts frequently have gone for naught. One year, guards on a very cold night thought it might be safe to step into a nearby restaurant to warm up for a bit. They were barely inside the front door when the goat was in flames.
Sometimes, the goat doesn’t survive anywhere close to Christmas. In 1970, it was lit only six hours after it was set up. And in 1979, it burned to the ground before it was even finished.
Rather than bored teenagers, a decidedly bizarre cast of characters has written itself into the lore of what is undoubtedly one of the world’s largest effigies. In 2005, two men dressed as Santa Claus and the Gingerbread Man were responsible for the goat’s destruction. In 2001, it was a tourist from Cleveland, one of the few culprits who has ever actually been apprehended. He spent 18 days in jail.
Today, the goat’s fame has gone worldwide. Since 1988, English bookies – in yet another example of how the English seem to bet on everything – have taken wagers on how long the goat will last. And, people can witness the goat’s likely demise through the goat’s official blog.
“Terrible night!” the goat wrote last year after burning to the ground. “Slept so well under my beautiful snow blanket, when it suddenly became awfully hot. It was fire!”
And I thought my family tradition of eating lasagna on Christmas Eve was strange.