Every year around the world, people put up Christmas trees to carry on an age-old tradition. There will be fights over how the tree is decorated and an ongoing struggle to stop the dog or cat from knocking off the low-hanging baubles.
In the Swedish city of Gavle, there’s a much bigger battle – keeping a 13-metre tall, seven-metre long straw goat from being destroyed.
The Gavle Goat – or Gavlebocken, as it’s called in Swedish – is a large-scale model of the Yule Goat, a Christmas symbol dating back to ancient pagan festivals.
Erected each year on the first day of advent, the Gavle Goat is recognised as the world’s biggest straw goat. It was first used in 1966, to attract tourists to Gavle in the festive season.
But when it was burnt down by vandals on New Year’s Eve, the simple Christmas goat took on a new status.
Now, almost every year vandals try to destroy the goat, which has amassed a global following of thousands on Twitter and Instagram.
And every year, the city tries to stop them.
Gavle’s battle for Christmas spirit
Since its inception, the goat has survived only 15 out of 51 years, sometimes being burnt or destroyed more than once in a season.
Last year he survived unscathed.
In the past, the Gavle Goat has been burnt down by vandals dressed as Santa and gingerbread men shooting flaming arrows, kicked to pieces by a group, and even knocked over when a car crashed into it.
In 2010, some vandals attempted to steal the goat with a helicopter, with reports suggesting they tried to bribe to a guard to let the plan go ahead.
Gavlebocken spokeswoman Maria Wallberg told the ABC the goat “means a lot to the people of Gavle”, with officials doing everything they can to protect it.
“It’s a world-famous Christmas symbol that makes people proud,” Ms Wallberg said.
“It gets [the locals] and all the fans around the world in a great Christmas mood. There are people around the Gavle Goat all the time, taking pictures and selfies.”
To try to stop it being burnt down, incarnations of the Gavle Goat have been doused in flame retardant, or hosed with water to form an ice coating.
“Last year we started with higher and double fences. We think that makes a big difference, especially for the spontaneous attacks from drunk people,” Ms Wallberg said.
“You can’t get in and out without getting caught now. Then there’s guards, cameras and dogs around the goat.”
Already this year there has been an attempt to burn down the smaller goat, referred to as Gavlebocken’s “little brother”. But the goat – which is made by the Natural Science Club of the School of Vasa – survived with only slight burns.
No attempt has been made on the main Gavle Goat … yet.
“Always be yourself. Unless you can be the Gävle goat. Then always be the Gävle goat.” But if you can’t BE me (cause you can’t): get yourself a minime to adore when I’m not around. #gävlebocken #minime pic.twitter.com/DHstJpthKd— Gävlebocken (@Gavlebocken) December 16, 2018
Secret pagan society or vandal pranksters?
The reason behind the yearly attacks is somewhat of a mystery, mainly because the culprits are rarely caught.
Some reports, including a documentary released earlier this year by The Guardian, suggest the burning is a religious battle between Christianity and paganism, with a “secret group” of people who still closely follow Norse gods responsible for much of the burning.
According to legend, Thor – the Norse god of thunder – rode a chariot led by two goats, which he would cook and eat each night for strength.
In the morning the goats would be reborn, ready to pull the chariot again.
The short documentary, called Killing Gavle, suggests the group believes they must burn the goat each year to ensure a good harvest and the return of the sun.
But Ms Wallberg said that while the goat’s demise was sometimes a planned assault, it is often just a group of drunks that is responsible.
“We think some attacks are planned, but the most of them are made by people getting home from a party night,” Ms Wallberg said.
“It’s important to remind people that it’s a crime to attack the Gavle Goat.”
Under Swedish law, anyone who destroys or damages property with great cultural importance can face up to four years in jail.
But nobody has been jailed for vandalising the goat. The few vandals caught by police are usually fined.
In 2001, police arrested 51-year-old American Lawrence Jones – who was visiting Gavle from Ohio – for burning down the goat.
After being held for 18 days, Mr Jones was fined 100,000 Swedish krona ($15,355). He fled the country without paying, according to local media.
Mr Jones’s excuse was that he believed burning down the goat was a local tradition and that he wanted to be a part of it.
All I want for Christmas is for the #GavleGoat to BURN! (Justice for the corrupt and peace on Earth would be nice too) — © ® (@ClayT1000) December 16, 2018
A global sensation, a local goldmine
While every year is a fight to survive, the Gavle Goat’s global popularity is an important tourism boost for the city.
Each year thousands of locals, tourists and fans of Gavlebocken attend his inauguration concert, complete with bands and fireworks in Castle Square.
Thousands more visit during the Christmas season, making it an extremely valuable attraction for Gavle.
Themed snacks, shirts and souvenirs are sold in shops, with hotels and local business owners hoping the goat survives as long as possible to keep the tourists coming.
According to the official website, 420,000 people visited the Gavle Goat when he was on tour in the Chinese sister city of Zhuhai in 2014, dressed in a flower coat for the spring occasion.
Gavlebocken has even had songs written about it, including one by the suitably named Swedish psychedelic rock band, Goat.
According to Ms Wallberg, about 120,000 people watch the live webcam each year from more than 120 countries, waiting to see if he survives, or perishes.
“We understand that he’s famous because of the attacks, but we like him to stay all the way until we take him down on January 2,” she said.
“The Gavle Goat is a travel reason and great for the city businesses, so we do everything to keep him safe so visitors can come to Gavle and look at him during Christmas and over new year.”