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“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5
Every December, in a city halfway around the world, a security guard patrols the perimeter of a fenced enclosure that holds a giant creature. This solitary animal never moves but stands proud as a symbol of hope during the dark winter months in a small Nordic city on the upper coast of the Baltic Sea.
Standing at the city center is a 42-foot-high, 3.6-ton straw sculpture called the Gävle goat.
Like many small towns and struggling cities hoping to lure shoppers during the holiday season, the city of Gävle in Sweden initially intended to use the goat as a marketing strategy when it was first patched together in the early days of December 1966. The giant sculpture is based on the traditional yule goat and, although the origins go back to ancient pagan festivals, today the yule goat has become a symbol of gift giving and is best known as a small Christmas ornament made of straw and bound together with red ribbon. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Gävle yule goat is the largest straw goat sculpture in the world. It has garnered social media followers in 120 countries. It has its own website, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube channel, and 24-hour live cam.
With a sturdy wooden frame, a truck load of straw, 1,600 meters of rope and 12,000 knots to bind it all together, the Gälve goat stands today as an international symbol of Christmas.
But on New Year’s Eve 1966, only 30 days after the giant straw goat stood for the very first time, someone burned it down. The person was found and convicted of vandalism. The next year, a fence was put in place to provide a layer of protection against another attack. But in 1969, someone burned it down again. Since then, the Gälve goat has been constantly under siege.
Every year, someone tries to burn down Christmas.
Various websites provide a detailed year-by-year account of the fate of the goat. According to the records, the 1970s and ’80s were especially challenging. In those two decades, it survived only a handful of times. In the ’90s, even with the addition of volunteer guards and a security camera, it survived only a handful of times. The past 20 years haven’t been much better, as illustrated by some colorful stories.
In 2001, the goat was burned down by an American from Cleveland, Ohio. He was convicted and spent 18 days in jail and was ordered to pay a fine of almost $20,000 in today’s dollars. The court confiscated his lighter while he pleaded with the court that he was not a “goat burner!” Rather, he believed he was participating in a legal tradition of setting the goat on fire. After serving his sentence, the Swedish court released him from jail, and he returned to the states without paying the fine.
In 2005, vandals dressed as Santa and a gingerbread man shot a flaming arrow at the goat and burned it to the ground. Three days later, a countrywide hunt for Santa and his spicy cookie companion was announced live on the Swedish television broadcast “Most Wanted,” but no arrests were ever made.
In 2010, someone tried to burn down the goat, but they were unsuccessful, and the goat survived. However, later that year, a news story reported that one of the security guards was bribed to leave his post while a helicopter plotted to steal the goat by airlifting it to Stockholm. The guard refused the bribe, and the plan never materialized.
In 2015, a 26-year-old man was arrested while fleeing the scene of the burning straw inferno. His face was singed, he smelled of gasoline and he had a lighter in his hand. He later admitted to setting the fire, was given probation, and paid a large fine for damages.
As of December 2022, 38 out of 57 goats have been burned, destroyed, or damaged in some way. In a documentary about the Gälve goat, the mayor of the city reflected on the meaning of the Christmas symbol. She said, “The goat represents love, light, and happiness. It gives hope to the people in our town. When the goat burns down, it feels like the darkness has won.”
Some time ago, thousands of miles from Gälve, in a small town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, straw was gathered up and stuffed into a wooden manger. There, wrapped in strips of cloth ribbon was Christmas incarnate—a light in the darkness giving hope to humanity. But since the very beginning, Christmas has been under siege.
After Christ was born, Herod tried to burn down Christmas.
He called the Magi into his throne room, gleaned from them the time of the star’s first appearance, cross-referenced that date with an ancient prophecy, and then ordered his army to execute every boy in Bethlehem two years and younger. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt during the night, and Christ was kept safe until Herod died. But years later, the Jewish religious leaders burned Christmas to the ground when they crucified Christ.
The light of the world was extinguished. Darkness had won.
In 2016, only hours after celebrating its 50th birthday, an unknown vandal set fire to the Gälve goat. The highly publicized investigation centered on a hat discovered near the charred remains. Using DNA technology, police matched a hair fiber embedded in the hat to a local man and arrested him.
Although that human hair belonged to one person, the biblical witness clearly says that we’re all guilty of arson. According to Scripture, burning down a goat is just a symptom of a larger human disease deep in the bones of every person—a perpetual bent toward vandalizing everything beautiful and good.
In Romans 7:22-23, the Apostle Paul (after trying to burn down Christmas himself) was struggling to name the inner arsonist plaguing humanity. He eventually found the words and wrote, “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” Feeling trapped and unable to break out of this perplexing human problem, Paul looks to the One born in the manger—Christmas incarnate—and erupts in praise “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Christ our Lord!”
Since the very beginning, Christmas has been under siege. In large and small ways, we’re all guilty of shooting flaming arrows. As we stare brokenhearted at the charred remains of our lives and our world, it often feels as though the darkness is winning. But every year during the light-starved days of winter, the Gälve goat reminds us of a loving God, who descended into darkness to rescue a world full of vandals with singed faces, smelling of gasoline with a lighter in their hands.
We burned down Christmas, but God resurrected Christ and placed him center stage as an international beacon of hope—light overcoming darkness, streaming beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem straight into every heart all over the world. Thanks be to God.
About the Author
Sam Gutierrez is the Associate Director at the Eugene Peterson Center for the Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary. More of his creative work can be found at printandpoem.com