Every year since 1966, the small town of Gävle in Sweden erects a 40-foot straw goat on the first day of Advent. For 37 of those years, the Gävle goat has been destroyed; more often than not, it has been set ablaze and burned to the ground.
So ensues the annual conflict for the spirit of Christmas, fought between the Christians who run Gävle’s businesses—who believe that the effigy brings local families and tourists to the city, and also serves as a symbol of light in times of darkness—and the pagans who live in the surrounding forests. The pagans’ traditions date back to pre-Christian times, when Swedes worshipped Norse gods, including the goat Heidrun, the goddess of enlightenment, and Thor, the god of thunder, who rode across the skies on a chariot led by two goats. At night, Thor would burn and eat the goats; in the morning, they would be reborn. (In Norse mythology, the world was created in a blaze of fire.)
“Every year, they build their Trojan horse, and every year, they are shocked when Troy gets burned to the ground,” says an unnamed pagan interviewed in Joe Fletcher’s short documentary, Killing Gävle. In the film, produced by The Guardian, residents from both sides of the goat conflict explain their motivations and belief systems.
“What attracted me to the story was its elemental nature,” Fletcher told The Atlantic in an email. “It was about the light fighting against the dark of the Swedish winter; it was about paganism fighting back against Christianity; good and evil. Big themes are the backdrop of this intimate tale of a small town trying to protect its giant straw goat, which somehow had come to symbolize the innocence and wonder of their children.”
Fletcher was forced to shoot the film over two Christmases because the goat was burned down in record time the first year. “And then to deepen my woes, the town council initially thought that I had burnt it down to get the perfect shot,” Fletcher said. “For the record, I really didn’t burn the Goat down in 2016.”
This year, the goat boasts more fortification than ever, with increased security and cameras being deployed in the days leading up to Christmas.
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