Forget biathlon, ice skating or sleigh rides ... the real winter fun, at least in Gävle, Sweden, is goat burning.
For all the talk of hockey and skiing being Sweden's national sports in winter, there is another game a small group likes to play while others watch: Goat burning
No, not real goats but the massive straw goat townsfolk erect every Christmas in Gävle.
Since 1966, businesses and residents have been getting together in the beginning of December to build a 45-foot tall straw goat. The goat is a traditional symbol of Yuletide in Sweden, and the annual straw goat is a draw to local businesses in the city’s downtown.
It’s also one of the hottest tickets among British bookies.
Starting in 1989, London bookies began setting on odds on how long the goat would survive. Pinnacle Sports odds makers this year gave the statue a 7-5 chance of surviving while making arsonists 2-3 favorites for destroying the goat. (For those interested, a bettor would win $2 for each $3 wager on the fire starters, while if the goat survives, a $5 wager would win $7.)
“Each year the town of Gävle erects an enormous goat to celebrate the festive season, which commences the battle between vandals trying to destroy the structure and those protecting the goat," said Simon Noble of PinnacleSports.com. "Despite coating this year's straw statue in a waterproof, flame-retardant coating, odds are the goat will go up in smoke before Christmas again this year.”
The odds makers in London gave would-be vandals a tough task this year as they are allowing for in-place repairs on the goat. Even if vandals manage to ignite the goat, if volunteers or officials save, then repair the goat without moving it from its mooring, bookies say they would consider the goat “happy, healthy and lasting.”
The odds makers gave potential arsonists until Christmas Eve to torch the statue.
Although arsonists have burned the goat 27 times in 43 years, the vandals don’t simply light a match and touch a flame to the straw, at least, not always.
In 2008, two men dressed as Santa Claus and one dressed as a gingerbread man burned the goat to the ground on Dec. 27. Last year, arsonists turn high-tech to defeat the layer of cyber protection organizers put on the goat. Vandals hacked into the Web site that had a pair of Web cams watching the goat, disabling the video surveillance. They then set the goat alight.
It isn’t always vandals that burn the goat. The city has a fireworks show, and in 1997 some of the pyrotechnics landed in the wrong place, setting the goat on fire.
Each time the arsonists strike, goat builders respond the following year with more security. Now, builders douse each piece of straw with a fire retardant chemical and in addition to a pair of Web cameras monitoring the goat, an army of volunteers keep vigil throughout each night in December.
The Gävle Christmas goat, however, is more than just the target of arsonists and the butt of jokes. It is a point of pride for the people in the city of 68,000 situated halfway between Stockholm and Umeå on Sweden’s east coast.
When local merchants grew tired of seeing their creation burn down in 1971, students took up the cause. Their goats twice made the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest straw sculpture in the world. The first time came in 1985 when students from the Vasaskolan built a 38-foot high goat. They topped their own record in 1993, building a 52-foot high statue. Their feat must have impressed even the most hardened vandal as the goat survived the season.
It also survived 1994, but in 1995 up in smoke it went.
This year, the goat stands proudly in the city center and again has a pair of Web cameras monitoring it. There are actually two goats—the 45-foot high statue in the city center and a smaller goat at Vasaskolan. People from across the globe can view the goat by going to http://merjuligavle.se/Bocken/Bockenkamera1/.
As for the 2010 goat, put us down for $10 … on the goat.
by Chipp Reid