Weird Wednesdays: Straw goats roasting on an open fire

Christmas Trees. Missletoe. Yule Goats. Staples of the holiday season. (odin062/ Flickr, Creative Commons)

Now that Thanksgiving is over and the holidays are nigh, you can already see people putting up decorations, planning their Christmas shopping, booking flights and laying out their goat immolation strategies for the upcoming season.

What’s that, you say? You don’t have a goat immolation strategy, you say? Well, get on with it, then! You’ve only got 22 days of Advent, and giant Scandinavian straw caprines don’t go burning themselves down, you know.

Some background: Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, etc.) have multiple Christmas traditions and complements to the standard “Santa and some reindeer” setup. For example, Nisser/tomten, or Christmas gnomes, replace Santa’s regular elves. Old St. Nick also gets by with a little help from his trusty Yule Goat the Julbocken (pronounced “YEEL-bohk-en”), who rides around and helps him deliver presents, perhaps inspired by the goats that pulled Thor’s chariot.

In some versions, the goat is a spirit that hangs around a household and makes sure that all the Yule traditions are being carried out properly, kind of like a less-creepy Elf on The Shelf (“Goat on the Shelf” doesn’t have as much ring to it, I suppose). Don’t confuse the Julbock with his nastier cousin Krampus, though—he’s a more Alpine tradition, sticking to Germany, Austria and such, and the Julbock doesn’t kidnap and eat children.

The Yule Goat is commonly represented as a straw or corn-shuck effigy and either placed on mantels and windowsills or used an ornament. Some towns will build large yule goats, like a town Christmas tree. Except as a goat, typically made of straw. Nice, flammable straw.

Which brings us to the little town of Gävle, Sweden. The town’s been building their annual Yule Goat (known as the Gävlebocken) since 1966. In 1993, it won the Guinness World Record for the world’s Largest Yule Goat, standing at nearly 50 feet high and weighing over three metric tonnes. It’s a staple of the city’s Castle Square, and shoppers will often greet it and take pictures of it as they go about their business. Constructing it takes hundreds of straw bales and is a two-day affair.

And, for some reason, people keep burning it down.

The first goat stood at 43 feet tall and was (ironically) built by the local fire chief, along with a group of local businessmen in 1966. It was then burned down on New Year’s Eve.

Though the goat was insured, and perpetrator caught, the action struck both a literal and metaphorical match for the years to come.

Though the goat survived for the next two years (with a fence added in 1968), the goat was burned down once more in 1969. In 1970, it survived for a mere six hours post-construction before being burned down by two drunk teenagers. In 1971, after the goat was smashed to pieces, local businesses stopped financing the goat, and a miniature version was built by the local Natural Science Club from the School of Vasa.

A goat built by local children didn’t much strike the heartstrings of the yearly vandals, as the mini goat was subsequently burned, collapsed, smashed and/or kidnapped over the years. It didn’t stop when the town returned to the tradition of building the larger goat a few years later.

In 1976, a student in a modified Volvo rammed into the goat, collapsing it. In 1979, mischief-makers managed to burn down the goat as is was being constructed, leading to the second goat to be doused in fireproofer.

The burnings didn’t stop. Of the 51 times the goat has been built, it’s been immolated, kicked to pieces, collapsed and otherwise destroyed a total of 37 times.

It’s not for a lack of trying on the town’s part. Gävle has taken significant countermeasures, including building a double fence around the goat, soaking it in fireproofer and covering it in ice, guarding it 24/7 with soldiers from the Gävle I 14 Infantry Regiment (later on with armies of volunteers), establishing a Goat Committee and putting a live webcam on the beast.

Some of the odder attacks include a pair of individuals dressed as a gingerbread man and Santa Claus shooting flaming arrows at the goat in 2005, a covert arson heist that involved disabling the security cameras through computer hacking in 2009, an ill-fated attempt to kidnap the goat using a helicopter in 2010 (which failed due to the guard rejecting a bribe to adandon his post) and, most recently, a lobbed molotov cocktail that ended the Julbock on its 50th anniversary in 2016, mere days after it was erected.

For the record, the town doesn’t much appreciate people burning the goat down. It costs 100,000 kroner (about $11,000) and creates a massive hazard when lit up. Tourists in the past, duped into thinking that the burning of the goat was a tradition, took it upon themselves to torch the effigy and wound up with a hefty fine—the cost of the goat.

The Jullbock, which has its own Twitter, managed to survive last year’s holiday season. This year’s goat will be built for the first advent day (Dec. 2) on Sunday. The town is guarding it more fiercely than ever, though time will tell how long it lasts.

Until then, stay vigilant—and toasty. And, of course, stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.