Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again; finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand and becomes part of the ceremony. ~Franz Kafka
Christmas straw goats do not survive long in Gävle, Sweden. Since 1966, these huge structures have been torched almost every other year. It’s a Christmas tradition in Gävle. And I mean “tradition” in its richest sense.
This bears on the point:
In 2001, a 51-year-old American visitor set fire to the goat. He had to spend 18 days in jail and was subsequently convicted and ordered to pay 100,000 SEK in damages. The court also confiscated his cigarette lighter with the argument that he clearly was not able to handle it. The American stated in court that he is no “goat burner”, and believed that he was taking part in a completely legal goat-burning tradition.
Legal, no. But traditional? It would appear so. One is reminded of tomato-pelting and bull-running, illegal at one time, still vaguely transgressive, but now an integral part of an annual carnivalesque spectacle.
Every tradition has a birthday. Those that survive do so by being continually lived and reinvented. The dialectic of contested ritual injects old forms with new life.
In 1971, the Southern Merchants became so frustrated with the continual burning of their goats, that for 15 years they stopped building them, and the task was taken up by the Natural Science Club of the School of Vasa. The Natural Science Club’s Yule Goat fared no better; besides being burnt and vandalised, one year it was even run over by a car. From 1988 onward, English bookmakers made it possible to bet on the goat’s destiny. In 1996 the Southern Merchants introduced webcams to monitor the goat 24 hours a day, with little or no success. On 27 November 2004 the Gävle Goat’s homepage was hacked into and one of the two official webcams changed to display “Burn Bockjaevel” (translation: Burn the damn Goat) in the left corner of its live feed. One year, while security guards were posted around the goat in order to prevent further vandalism, the temperature dropped far below zero. As the guards ducked into a nearby restaurant to escape the cold, the vandals struck. Before they even had a chance to raise their glasses they saw flames shooting from the goat through the restaurant window.
There’s a quick-and-dirty history of the Swedish Yule Goat here. From pagan symbol to Devil (a not-uncommon reversal) to bringer of Christmas gifts, this julbocken has lived a protean existence for a millennium or more.
Without delving a little deeper, one can only speculate about the current meanings of this perennial act of “vandalism.” At about the time of the winter solstice, the world disappears into the night and is reborn. Yule goats, both literally and symbolically, have traditionally been sacrificed to ensure that rebirth. The goat in Nordic tradition is a trangressive, even fearsome figure: its death, however enacted, is a form of triumphalism.
The “death” of the Gävle goat might also be seen as an act of unproductive expenditure, Georges Bataille’s “accursed share.” Recall that the giant goat has been the creation (but for a fifteen-year interlude) of local merchants. The goat-burning may be the necessary social complement to this community “gift” of excess production—as the crafting of potlatch coppers may be followed by their ceremonial destruction.
At the very least, one should not give into the temptation to regard the semi-annual torching of the goats as merely a recurrent prank. None of these repeated, organized behaviours in a community should be so lightly dismissed: the collective histories of that community and the wider society are being re-enacted before our eyes, if we would but look.
[H/t to @Dred_Tory for a lengthy, semi-drunken discussion of Bataille’s economic theories]