I love random traditions, mostly because they encourage fun. My undergraduate school had a Friday every spring where the administration rang the chapel bells at ten to signal the cancellation of classes and brought in carnival games and rides and pig races to encourage us to “get into” our college.* There’s a university in the midwest that spectates a basketball game in complete silence until their team scores 10 points and then it’s a student body/boosters dance party on the court for a few minutes. A village in Scotland plays a new year’s ballgame that doesn’t exist anywhere else.** And in Gävle, Sweden, they burn a 40-foot yule goat to the ground. Half the time.
The yule goat isn’t meant to be burned, but roughly half (26 or 28, depending on what you read) of the 57 total goats, which are built of straw, have been torched. One was hit by a car. Five more were vandalized. One was subject to a botched theft-by-helicopter attempt.
The first Gävle goat was erected in 1966, and, despite the frequent incineration, there has been a giant yule goat in Gävle every year since, with the exceptions of 1973, 1975, and 1977.
The yule goat is one of the oldest Scandinavian Christmas traditions, but its roots — and purpose — are somewhat hard to nail down. It’s likely origin is paganism — either Germanic or from the Norse God, Thor, whose sky chariot was drawn by a pair of goats. The yule goat’s purpose has changed drastically over the centuries. It was at one time an animal that traveled with carolers and demanded gifts at people’s homes. And it has been a figure to be hidden in one’s neighbour’s house without their noticing. And it has been a giver of gifts. These days, it’s mostly a tree ornament.
But it’s also a 40-foot straw figure in the centre of Gävle that often ends up a pile of ash before the new year.
As of this writing, the 2013 yule goat is unscathed; firemen doused it in fire-retardant chemicals before its December 1st unveiling.
*It was colloquially known as “get intoxicated.” It was also meant to be a surprise, but everyone always knew when it was going to be because it was a small school and everyone knew someone who sat in student government.
**The history of that game is cool. I thought I’d written about it here before, but it seems I didn’t. That’s a failure on my part. There’s a very, very good article about it here that you should take the time to read.