Eje Berglund on Sweden’s Gävle Goat and Why People Keep Burning It Down

GAEVLE, SWEDEN: A composite photo of the Christmas straw goat, torched by vandals in Gaevle, Sweden, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2004. The goats, erected by local merchants for Christmas, has only made it through the holiday season ten times without being burnt since since 1966.
The Gävle Goat before and after it was set on fire in 2004. Photo: Per-Erik Jaderberg/AFP/Getty Images

Last night, in the Swedish town of Gävle, a 42-foot-tall straw goat that had been constructed for Christmas was set on fire. As it succumbed to the flames, the Gävle Goat bid a final farewell to the world on Twitter. “The last hour is here,” the somber message read. “I’m sorry to leave you now.Thank you my friends for this year! I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” The Swedish news outlet the Local reports, “When emergency services reached the scene, the straw structure had already been completely destroyed.”

In any other town, such an act of arson might come as a shock. Not in Gävle. The giant straw goat has been built every year since 1966, and about half of the time, someone has burned it to the ground. To learn more about this bizarre ritual, I spoke today to Eje Berglund — the spokesman and chairman of the committee that oversees the Gävle Goat — whose English is a lot better than my Swedish.

I’m very interested in this Gävle Goat [I’m saying this like “gavel,” the thing a judge uses]  — am I pronouncing that correctly?
Gävlebocken [he says this like yeah-vleh-boken]*.

Wait, what is it?
The town is Gävle [yeah-vleh], and the goat is bocken [boken], in Swedish. Gävlebocken [yeah-vleh-boken].

Oh. I was way off. So, explain to me, what is the Gävle Goat? Because we don’t have Christmas goats here in America.
Actually, the Christmas goat is a very old tradition in Sweden, and usually we make the goat of straw. This goat was built for the first time in the sixties or the seventies, maybe. But anyhow, we try to set him up every year on what we call First Advent, four weeks before Christmas Eve. And we put him in there and have a big celebration with fireworks and so on, and it’s a big celebrity in our hometown.

Why do people want to burn down the Gävle Goat?
Some people think it’s a tradition to burn it down, but it isn’t. I think it’s more because of betting and playing money. Some guys have been drunk — they leave the restaurant in the night, and they try to be famous in some bad way, and they have burned it down. So the meaning is not to burn it down; the meaning is to have it over Christmas and New Year and then take it down and have it for next year. Half of the years that we have had the goat, it has been burned down, [and the other half] we have taken it down as a whole goat and can save it for next year. But every second year, approximately, it has been burned down.

What’s the fastest that it’s ever been burned down?
I think it was eight years ago it was burned down the night before the celebration. It was built on a Friday and burned down on Saturday night. But that year, we had a second one so that we could start the celebration one week after.

Gävle Goat Set Ablaze, Again! from artifacting on Vimeo.

So, why is it so difficult to guard the goat?
It’s not difficult, but to guard him costs a lot of money. And we are four different — besides the community of Gävle, we are three other companies that are sponsoring the goat. And it’s difficult to get all the money to set him up; it costs about 200,000 Swedish krona [$30,000] for that. And the money that we have left over, we pay for guarding. But as long as we have had a guard there, he [the goat] will stand. But when the money for guarding is lost, he will burn down. It has become like that, the last years at least. 

Do you ever catch the people that burn it down?
We have done it three times. Once there was an American artist; he was drunk, and he was here and visiting his friend in Gävle, and he tried it. He was meant to pay money for it, but he went back to the USA, and we couldn’t get any money from him. Twice there has been young men; they had no money to pay, and I don’t know what has happened to them. But during the last years, we haven’t been able to catch anyone.

Who do you think is doing it? Is it mostly teenagers, kids?
I don’t know, actually.

How do the people in town feel about it when the goat burns down? Are they all sad about it, or do some people enjoy it?
Most people are very sad about it. I think I have spoken to several hundred today, and everyone is sad about it. They can’t understand why the goat can’t be left alone.

Well, it’s become almost a tradition in itself at this point.
It’s a bad tradition to burn him down, but the tradition is to put him up, and we are working for that. But unfortunately it won’t be standing every year.

Have you considered building the goat out of something less flammable, maybe Formica or something?
We have coated it with an un-flammable material. It was five years ago, I think. But the problem was that he lost his yellow and nice color, and he became a brown goat instead, and we don’t want that. So we have tried different kinds of that. This year, the fire brigade was pouring him with water, and it’s very cold outside. We had hope it would be so icy that they couldn’t put fire on him, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough.

What kind of protection does the goat have besides the guard? Is there a wall or fence around the goat?
It’s a fence around it, but it’s not a big fence. The fence is only to avoid the easy way to get close to the goat, but you can jump over it, and now, as we have a lot of snow, it’s easy to jump over. But we don’t want to have a three-meter-high fence with electricity. It must be a good-looking fence. We have a fence that we call gärdesgård that is a traditional, Swedish, old fence that we had in the country.

I feel like you’re trying hard to not let the arsonists change your tradition. You don’t want the arsonists to win.
It seems to you that we build them to burn. [Laughs.] But no, it’s not the meaning. The tradition is that it should be a good-looking goat and not in a fence that is bad-looking. So I think we make it in the same way next year. But maybe we try to find another way to guard him. I can’t say anything about it yet because we just discussed this burned goat today, and we will take a look at how to guard him next year. We know we will have a goat next year.

Do you ever foresee a time that you decide, You know what? It’s not worth it, and you stop building the goat?
We have discussed it, but we think still it’s worth it because it’s still a very good trademark for the town. It’s one of Sweden’s most famous trademarks all over the world … I think last year it was burned down after five days, and we had about 100 visitors. The year before that we had 225,000 visitors from over 125 countries. It’s very famous all over the world. What’s going to happen with some of the visitors this year, I don’t know yet.

My condolences on your goat. I hope you have good luck next year.
Thank you for that. Happy New Year.

* I originally heard this as yeah-bleh-boken.

Q&A on the Gävle Goat