Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gävle Goat

Every year for almost a half-century, a giant straw goat has been erected in central Gävle, a city of 75,000 by the Baltic Sea about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Stockholm.

Since the first Gävle Goat (“Gävlebocken” in Swedish) was built in 1966, it’s been an attractive annual target for arsonists and other vandals. The city’s massive version of a Yule goat — the established Christmas symbol in Northern Europe and particularly in Scandinavia — was burnt down for the 26th time in 2012.

The iconic goat weighs 3.6 metric tons (8,000 pounds) and stands 13 meters (about 43 feet) tall, towering over the city’s main square. Erecting it, according to a 2012 interview in New York Magazine, costs around 200,000 SEK — close to $31,000 USD at today’s exchange. Paying humans to guard the goat isn’t cheap, either, but supposedly the most effective in ensuring its survival.

It’s constructed over two days every winter in time for the first Sunday of Advent, the countdown to Christmas. The city celebrates its arrival with a fireworks show — somewhat ironic in that pyrotechnics have caused its demise on multiple occasions.

The goat is synonymous with Gävle. It’s earned the city a lot of global attention. But while the goat may have helped put Gävle on the map, it feels like the arsonists are playing a larger role in keeping it in the international headlines virtually every other December.

The town trademark has evolved into two-way taunting. The English portion of the goat’s Twitter bio reads “I’m the biggest straw goat in the world, follow my struggle to survive arson attacks.” Last year, photo of four ankles tattooed with a burning goat and the time and date the 2012 version went down in flames was posted online.

Here’s a time-lapse of that goat’s final moments:

The Goat Committee (yes — there is one, founded in 1992) insists they don’t condone its burning. But in my humble opinion, if it weren’t such an annual game, not nearly as many people would pay any attention. The torching tradition keeps it interesting.

It doesn’t look particularly challenging for would-be arsonists to access the goat. The fence at left would probably deter only the least-committed attacker, but the Committee has stated it doesn’t want to sacrifice aesthetics to improve security, spurning the suggestion of a better barrier.

The hay used for the 2013 goat, which has now survived its first week, was soaked in an anti-flammable liquid — a tactic that has yielded historically mixed results.

Only 10 goats have stood past Christmas Day. The majority have burned, sometimes within hours of being built.

The first few years in the late 1960s, kids would apparently play hide-and-seek in and around the goat. Today, anyone inside the fence who isn’t a paid guard is probably up to no good.

The 1976 goat was hit by a car, while the 1997 edition was damaged by fireworks. Flameproofed goats in the 1980s were still successfully burnt down, and English bookmakers started taking bets on the goat’s fate during that decade.

Over the years, it’s been guarded by volunteers, paid security companies, taxis, cameras and even the local Swedish infantry.

Although perpetrators risk jail and hefty fines, only a handful have ever been caught. Included in the busted, though, is an American tourist from Ohio who got drunk while visiting a friend in Gävle and burned the 2001 goat down. He spent 18 days in jail but fled back to the States upon being released without paying 100,000 SEK ($15,400 USD) in damages.

In 2005, the goat burned down when arsonists dressed as Santa and a gingerbread man reportedly launched an aerial attack of flaming arrows. For the goat’s 40th anniversary the following year, it was fireproofed with a substance used in aviation and survived through to January 2, when it was dismantled on-schedule for storage.

Then a few years ago, just four months after I moved here, I read this story about two men trying to bribe a security guard in the hopes he would let them kidnap the goat by helicopter and bring it to a well-known square in the heart of Stockholm. I can only imagine how drunk you’d have to be to believe every part of that plan could work — especially transporting an 8,000-pound goat that distance by chopper.

The city of Gävle is quite good at marketing the goat — it has its own bilingual social media accounts, blog and webcam, which updates every several seconds and enables spectators from around the world to keep tabs on the goat’s fate.

While the webcam attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world, the goat itself draws an impressive number of tourists to the city each December who may have no other reason to venture north of Stockholm. I was fortunate to be passing through town on business last week and got to see the goat for the first time. If you ever find yourself in Stockholm in December, I would recommend taking the short train trip to check the spectacle out for yourself.

Information in this blog comes from Wikipedia and a variety of news sources/articles. All photos and opinions within belong to the blogger.