As Slate describes, the Gävle goat was instituted all the way back in 1966, when two brothers—an advertising consultant and a fire department chief—organized an effort in the city of Gävle to build a large straw statue of a goat for Christmas season. The goat represented one of the two that pull Odin’s chariot in Scandinavia’s pre-Christian pagan lore. It lasted just a few minutes into the New Year before it burned down.
Now you’d think that building a forty-foot-tall statue out of straw (over a metal frame) in honor of the winter solstice would just invite a bonfire. Even in Sweden, where there’s such a steady supply of snow to keep the straw cold and wet. But Gävle works to prevent its goat from burning. There are flame retardant chemicals, volunteer watches, police patrols, and webcams.
And those measures usually don’t work. The news reports I’ve seen differ on how often the Gävle Goat has been torched, though they agree that number is in the high twenties—i.e., more than half the time. The counts might be confused by the fact that it’s been destroyed in other ways: hit by cars and dismantled by hand (and foot). In 1970 the goat survived less than a day, though those young arsonists were caught. In 2005 people costumed as Santa Claus and the Gingerbread Man shot a flaming arrow at the goat and escaped.
In 2010 the goat survived the entire season, though there was a plot to steal it by helicopter. In 2011 it went up in flames on 2 December. In 2012 it survived until 12 December. This year, the goat went up in flames over the weekend. So at least it’s lasting longer.
Despite the widely reported tradition of destroying the Gävle Goat, it’s illegal to do so. In 2001 a visitor from Cleveland torched the goat, thinking he was participating in a local tradition. He was arrested, jailed for eighteen days, and fined SEK100,000, which he didn’t pay. Apparently the tradition is to set fire to the goat and get away.