- by Pati Nagle
I love exploring holiday customs from different cultures. Most people would recognize Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus and Rudolph, but have you ever heard of the Yule Goat?
The ancient festival of Yule is among the many holiday celebrations that occur this time of year. Today, the winter solstice, is a traditional day for celebrating Yule. See Wikipedia’s article on Yule for a comprehensive discussion of its history and various customs.
But to get to the goat.
The Yule Goat is an ancient Scandinavian custom (no, really!). Like the Boar’s Head of Christmas carol fame, the Goat probably started out as the main course of the holiday feast. It has evolved however, just as Saint Nicholas has evolved out of all recognition.
The role of the Yule Goat varied over the years. Early on in Finland it was a trickster, an ugly beast that demanded presents, while in other countries it would butt in (sorry) on the Yule preparations and make sure everything was done right.
By the 19th century the Yule Goat had become the distributor of presents. Yes, a goat. Dad would have to dress up in fur and cloven hooves to hand out the goodies, until Santa finally ousted the Goat around the turn of the century. Scandinavian fathers were grateful, no doubt.
Nowadays the Yule Goat manifests as adorable little goat ornaments made of straw. Oh—except for in the Swedish town of Gävle. In the sixties, one of its citizens decided the town needed a bigger straw goat. As in, gigantic.
The first Gävle Goat, built in 1966, was 13 meters tall. It stood proudly over the town until New Year’s Eve, when someone who didn’t have enough to do decided to see if it would burn. (Three tons of straw? Oh, boy did it burn!)
Since then, the Gävle Goat has overseen four decades of Christmases, and has been burned down twenty-two times. Most recently, it was torched by Santa Claus and a gingerbread man, who shot flaming arrows at it in 2005 (they were caught in the act by a security camera).
The following year, on its 40th anniversary celebration, the Gävle Goat got a birthday present: a massive coat of flame retardant. The provider claimed the Goat would not burn. Arsonists immediately put this to the test, but only succeeded in burning the Goat’s decorative red ribbon.
For two years, the Gävle Goat survived all attempts to sacrifice it by fire. This year, however, the town has decided to skip the flame retardant, which turned the straw brown. Said a spokesperson for the town, “We really want a yellow goat.”
Gävle is proud of its golden icon, made from straw that’s a byproduct of the grain used to brew the local whiskey. That seems appropriately festive, but will the Goat survive the jollity of Yule without his chemical coat?
Not only are they skipping the flame retardant, Gävle does not have a spare goat on hand this year, as it has in past years. If the Goat goes up, that’s it.
You can keep an eye on the Goat yourself, on the Bockenkamera (Goatcam). And if you want the latest Goat news, check out the Gävlebockens blogg (in Swedish, of course). The same site has a great picture of the Goat’s unveiling this year. I want to know how they kept the fireworks from sending it up in smoke.
So, Happy Yule, everyone, and may your goat never burn (unless you want it to)!
*Image of Gävle Goat by Stefan, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.