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The only Christmas tradition I care about is Sweden’s arson goat

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Every year, they build it, and every year, someone tries to burn it down

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The Gävle Goat before and after its most recent arson attack this year.
Photo by MATS ASTRAND,PERNILLA WAHLMAN/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

If you’ve never heard of the Gävle Goat before, there are just two critical pieces of information you need to know.

First: the Gävle Goat is a giant straw statue of a goat erected every Christmas in the Swedish town of Gävle. It’s essentially a massive Yule Goat, a traditional symbol of the Yuletide season in areas of Scandinavia and Northern Europe, and was first installed in the town in 1966. The most recent incarnation stands 42 feet high and weighs 3.6 tonnes.

Second: every year, someone tries to set the goat on fire. And most years, they succeed — including this one.

As the BBC reported this morning: “A giant straw goat that has become an annual highlight in the Swedish city of Gavle has been burned by an arsonist. A man in his 40s was arrested after the structure was set alight in the early hours of Friday. The goat has been attacked many times before but survived every festive period since 2016 under 24-hour security.”

I know this sounds sad, but it’s also, I think, the actual spirit of Christmas. Not the arson itself, but what the arson represents: the eternal battle between goat-erectors and goat-burners; between the forces of cozy commercialization, eager to smother the season in ribbons, presents, and sparkly lights, and the contrasting, primeval urge to set something huge on fire because the sun has disappeared and who knows when it’s coming back.

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The Gavle Goat in 2015.
Photo credit should read MATS ASTRAND/TT/AFP via Getty Images

This timeless struggle between humanity and nature plays out beautifully on the Wikipedia page for the Gävle Goat, which records the beast’s fate every year, as well as preventative measures taken by the authorities and the manner of its demise.

Since 1966, the goat has been “stolen,” “hit by a car,” and “kicked to pieces,” but the most popular method of dispatch is undoubtedly arson. Drunken teenagers, Norwegians, and even a passing American have all been blamed for attacks over the years, but it’s curious to me how ill-prepared these culprits often seem. It’s as if they hadn’t actually planned the attacks but were simply compelled in the moment by forces beyond their reckoning.

Consider, for example, in 2015, when a 26-year-old was arrested for torching the goat and fined 100,000 kronor ($10,989) in damages. The man was seen fleeing the scene right after the statue went up in flames and, when detained by a guard, was quickly identified as the guilty party because he had “a singed face, smelled of gasoline, and was holding a lighter in his hand.” This, I think, sounds less like a hardened criminal and more like a man possessed by the spirit of his pagan ancestors to restart the fires of the world — to bring warmth and light back into the universe — one goat at a time.

Okay, so, I know that burning down a statue is no fun at all for the people whose job it is to fund and protect it. As BBC News reported, a spokeswoman for the goat (A goatswoman? A spokesgoat?), one Rebecca Steiner, was devastated by this year’s attack. She told BBC News: “It’s just a week before Christmas, and I cannot understand how a person can carry out this kind of attack to a Christmas symbol known all over the world.”

But come on. At this point in time, the Gävle Goat is more famous for being burned down than it is for being left intact. And the authorities certainly aren’t afraid of, shall we say, playing with fire. An official Twitter account for the goat has been practically goading would-be arsonists, tweeting on Wednesday, “Half way through and this goat is still standing and looking so good!” and then again last night, quoting Chesney Hawkes, “I’m the one and only...” Those sound like fighting words, and I know that if I lived in Gävle, the only topic of conversation in the pub would be “who’s going to get that bastard goat this year.”

Well, this year, they got him. The fire-worshippers won, and the goat-erectors will have to console themselves with the international publicity they attracted. But we shouldn’t mourn the Gävle Goat any more than we mourn barren trees and empty fields. For if winter teaches us anything, it’s that life is cyclical, that good times follow bad, and that although the sun has disappeared and things look bleak, if we keep warm and dry, things will get better in due course.

Yes, the goat has gone, but it’s only a matter of time before it comes back — and only a matter of time before someone tries to burn it down again.