Yuletide Vandalism and Misrule

The Gavlebocken, or Gavle Goat, has been erected in Gavle, Sweden, since 1966, and in its life, its incarnations have been destroyed or damaged 37 times. Some consider it fitting that the Goat has been burned down (the most common method of destruction, given as the thing is made of straw) each year, as a sort of ritual sacrifice of the Goat to the old gods. Those in this school of thought would consider it fascinating that the Goat survived 2019, and a superstitious sort might attribute the year 2020 to that fact.

People are being discouraged from publicly visiting the Goat because of the pandemic, so it is likely to survive 2020, as well, although some enterprising sort might burn the thing down out of spite, or through some form of divine inspiration.

That isn’t the only form of Yule-related vandalism, although these days vandalism and general mayhem are relegated to New Year’s Eve and Halloween, parties at the former and things like toilet-papering houses at the former (Oct. 30 is called Mischief Night for a reason). There is also a living tradition of the theft of little baby Jesuses from Nativity scenes on public and private property. (There is a related custom of lifting garden gnomes and taking them on trips, but that is not strictly Yule-related.)

This year I have been feeling the undercurrent of older, wilder Yuletide customs and beliefs and the thinning of the veil between the spirit world and the physical world, more so than in past years. Christmas is lights and trees and carols, yes, but also ancient spirits and spiritual phenomena (such as the Wild Hunt, which some customs hold as most active around this time of year). I’ve been hearing the call of the spirits this year, and I think there’s something to the odd bits of Yuletide vandalism. I’m not the only one to feel the subtler energies this time of year that Victorians and Christians and other sorts tried to bury.

The term “misrule” originally applied to a complete social reversal, as occurred at Saturnalia when slaves were served by their masters, men dressed as women and vice versa. The custom, as customs are wont to do, evolved over time to arguably include wassailing, the practice of going door to door, singing and performing in exchange for gifts, food, and drink. The thing is, some people are rowdy drunks. Threats of vandalism began to enter the picture (although I wonder whether or not they were always there, under the surface), especially with the rise of the middle class and nouveaux riche, and the practice “fell out of favor” (this is how it is commonly described). It was replaced with the more benign caroling, going door to door singing Christmas carols just to do so.

But this doesn’t stop people from getting rowdy. Some of those instincts get shunted off to other holidays, as mentioned. However, some of them get funneled into acts like burning down the Gavle Goat, or stealing your neighbor’s or the town’s baby Jesus for a lark.

Perhaps it all speaks to something older “than us or God” (to quote a favorite “not quite Christmas-y” song). Perhaps the energies of the season, the energies of the Otherworld, are moving through arsonists to enact ancient rites. I wouldn’t know, of course, but there might be something to it. Something has been moving about in the physical for quite some time as many writers have attested, and this year it hit me personally quite hard.

What else was I gonna think about in 2020?