It’s the holiday season—a time of hope in the face of darkness—and as traditions go, there’s nothing so hopeful as the Gävle Goat. Every winter for over half a century, the town of Gävle, Sweden, has built a 43-foot-tall goat in the middle of its town square, rooting for the animal to survive the season. And very nearly every winter, it does not, and is instead set on fire. In 2016, it only lasted a day.
The 2017 Gävle Goat was built this past weekend, and this year, its protectors swear things will be different. “We will have cameras and two security guards in place,” pledged Maria Wallberg, a municipality spokesperson, in an interview. “We have also put up double fences.” When asked whether there are further security measures in place, she demurred, saying only “it’s secret.”
Gävle built its first giant Yule goat in 1966, when a local advertising executive decided that a massive version of the traditional Scandinavian decoration might make for a good tourist attraction. He was right, but he failed to account for the other people who might be drawn to a four-story straw sculpture. On December 31 of that year, at midnight exactly, someone torched it.
In this way, two equal and opposite traditions were born. Every year, the town puts up a goat, and every year, people try to destroy it. So far, the scorecard stands at goat—12, vandals—39.
Both sides get points for creativity. Besides the standard method of lighting it on fire, people have also destroyed the goat by driving a Volvo into its back legs (1976), tricking an American tourist into doing the deed (2001), and shooting flaming arrows at it while dressed in holiday costumes (2005).
The town has fought back with everything from chicken wire (1969) to a volunteer guard brigade (1990) and increasingly thick coats of flame retardant. They haven’t had a victory since 2014, when the goat defeated at least one attempt on its life and survived the season, thanks in part to a strategically placed taxi stand that discouraged sneak attackers.
On Sunday, December 3, a large crowd gathered to inaugurate this year’s sculpture, and things went well. Fireworks exploded, but the goat did not. Bands were struck up instead of matches. And when everyone left for the evening, they could continue checking in on the goat via a 24-7 livestream. (Although the stream went down for a few hours today, as of press time, it is back up.)
Although the goat’s enemies are doubtlessly plotting already, maybe they should leave it alone this year, just for poetic effect. Imagine: 2017 ends, and everything’s on fire but the Gävle Goat.