I like goats. The sounds they make. The way they leap when excited. Despite memories of being chased by a rather exuberant old goat – I had trespassed into his field as a child – my fondness for the stumpy-horned little beasts remains unwavering. So, imagine my delight to learn that I would be visiting a Swedish city that shares my soft spot for our four-legged friend.
Gavle is a small town of approximately 100,000 people that dates back to the 15th century. A 50-minute train ride from Stockholm, it has produced its fair share of ice hockey stars, but in recent years, its biggest celebrity is the Gavlebocken, or the Christmas goat. To clarify, I was not there to goat-spot; rather to give lectures at Gavle University and to visit the site of our latest eco-residential project.
After a hearty breakfast of fine pates, cured salmon, cheese, and a veritable cornucopia of fresh breads and Swedish coffee, I met Marita, an architect and perpetually upbeat mother of three who also teaches. Our walk along the lush banks of the Gavle River to the university took us past an odd stone goat, and despite the temptation to ask about these curious objects, I sensed a digression from the topics of high-density/smart cities to goat-related trivia was inappropriate.
But by evening, and with the lecture and site visit completed, curiosity got the better of me, and not wanting to sound like a complete cultural cretin, I volunteered a nugget of information that I had googled on the train.
“What a wonderful festival the burning of the Gavlebocken must be at Christmas time!” A split second of silence from Marita was enough for me to realise my faux pas. With cheerful politeness, she regaled of the goat festival’s idiosyncrasies.
You see, the Gavlebocken isn’t meant to be burnt. The giant straw goat is a Christmas symbol that has been erected every year since 1966 by local community groups at the beginning of Advent.
But now, it has become equally famous for the increasingly outrageous attempts to raze it to the ground during the festive period.
As of December 2016, the Gavlebocken has been destroyed 37 times.
Despite security guards, surveillance, fire retardant coatings and even the presence of a fire station nearby, various individuals have not been deterred from fine tuning their archery skills and releasing volleys of burning arrows from nearby apartment windows as if taking pot shots at some medieval marked-man. Their fantastical plans, honed with almost military position, have seen the poor goat burned to the ground most years since its first appearance. As of December 2016, the Gavlebocken has been destroyed 37 times.
Was this arson? Sport? Or sub culture? As I got on the plane to London I recalled as a child how we would burn effigies of Guy Fawkes – the man who planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the 17th century, and arguably a far more macabre cultural practice. Give me a burning Christmas goat any day.
Tweets from the goat itself: Not always a merry Christmas
Oh no, such a short amount of time with you my friends. 😢 But I shall rise from the ashes and see you next year again!
— Gävlebocken (@Gavlebocken) November 27, 2016
Prof Jason Pomeroy is the founder of Singapore-based urbanism, architecture, design and research firm Pomeroy Studio. He also hosts the television series Smart Cities 2.0, City Time Traveller (Series 1 & 2) and City Redesign and believes that travel is a fundamental part of education. Read our full interview with Pomeroy here.