As It Happens

Sweden's giant straw yule goat is like catnip for arsonists — and it's been burned again

The Gävle Goat — an annual yuletide tradition in the Swedish town of Gävle — was set ablaze on Friday for the first time in five years, reviving a long-running tradition of locals illegally attempting to torch it while authorities scramble to stop them. 

Gävle Goat spokesperson says she doesn't understand why people want to destroy it

On the left, the 2021 Gävle Goat, a Swedish Christmas tradition, stands unscathed at its inauguration in the town of Gävle in November. On the right, the bones of the goat are all that remain after someone burned it down early Friday morning. (Mats Astrand and Pernilla Wahlman/TT News Agency/AFP/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

Rebecca Steiner says she was heartbroken as she watched Sweden's massive straw Christmas goat go down in flames on Friday.

The Gävle Goat — an annual yuletide tradition in the Swedish town of Gävle — was set ablaze on Friday for the first time in five years, reviving a long-running tradition of people trying to destroy it as authorities scramble to stop them.

A man in his 40s has been arrested in connection with the blaze. 

"My heart really feels for the goat-builders who have put a lot of time and effort in building him. And of course, I feel really sad as well for his fans, and for myself as well," Steiner, the goat's spokesperson, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"He's this Christmas symbol that's supposed to bring joy and happiness and Christmas feelings. Then someone sabotages this."

A view of the frame of the giant straw Yule goat after it was set ablaze Friday. A man in his 40s has been arrested in connection with the fire. (Pernilla Wahlman/TT News Agency/Reuters)

Sabotage tradition gets their goat

And yet, sabotaging the goat is almost as much of a tradition as erecting it.

The Gävle Goat is a 12.8-metre, three-tonne statue made with a wooden skeleton covered in straw. The town has built one every year before Christmas since 1966. It's an offshoot of an old pagan tradition in which Swedish people place much smaller straw goats around their homes during the festive season. 

The very first year the statue was installed, someone burned it down on New Year's Eve. 

It's the most stupid and crazy thing you can do with this kind of symbol that represents Christmas.- Rebecca Steiner, Gävle Goat spokesperson

Since then, there have been dozens of attacks against the goat — some thwarted, some successful. People have run over the goat with cars, torched it with fireworks and smashed it with clubs. 

Two assailants — one dressed as Santa Claus and one as a gingerbread man — shot the goat with burning arrows in  2005. The culprits were never caught.

In 2010, someone attempted to abduct it with a helicopter.

During its 53-year-history, the goat has only survived unscathed about 15 times. 

The goat burning on Dec. 23, 2001. The tradition of sabotaging the goat is almost as much of a tradition as building it. (Andreas Bardell/Associated Press)

It's something Steiner has trouble wrapping her head around.

"There will always be these persons who think that it's some kind of thing to destroy him, which I have no understanding for at all," she said.

"It's the most stupid and crazy thing you can do with this kind of symbol that represents Christmas."

Vandals butt heads with security 

To combat the vandals, the town has ramped up security over the years, hiring guards and deploying 24-hour video surveillance. The goat itself is thoroughly doused in flame retardant.

Mostly, all of that has worked.

This marks the first time in five years the goat has gone down in flames — though last year someone managed to torch the goat's "little brother."

"It's very unfortunate that this person made it through anyway," Steiner said of this year's attack. 

Nevertheless, the Gävle Goat always bounces back. 

Next year, a team of about 30 workers will spend another 8,000 hours building the straw beast, Steiner said, and it will be as "majestic" and "confident" as ever. 

"We will be back next year," she said. "That, I can guarantee."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. 

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