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The Fiery History of Scandinavia's Yule Goat

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In Gävle, Sweden, nothing says “Christmas” like the sight of a four-ton straw goat overlooking the town square. Too bad some jerk usually comes along and lights it on fire.

The first Gävle Goat was put up on December 1, 1966. Financed by a local entrepreneur, the magnificent beast stood 23 feet in length and over four stories tall. But this colossus of holiday cheer went up in smoke that New Year’s Eve at the hands of a nearby pyromaniac. Luckily, the goat was insured and the perpetrator charged with vandalism. Since then, a new model is built from hay (almost) every year in a tradition that ranks among the country’s most famous.

Unfortunately—as the good people of Gävle know all too well—no goat is hooligan-proof. Last year’s specimen, for example, lasted only until December 12th before being burned to a crisp.

But petty arson is hardly the worst fate that can befall a Gävle goat. Other grisly demises include getting kicked to pieces and being hit by a car. To date, a grand total of 36 have been destroyed. Things got even weirder in 2010, when a pair of schemers planned to kidnap the goat and transport it to Stockholm via helicopter only to have the guard on duty reject their bribe of 50,000 kronor ($7350 USD).

Fed up with these malicious acts of violence against fake livestock, officials have announced that the straw used in the 2013 incarnation has been treated with fire-proof liquids.

This strange Gävle custom was inspired by the yule goat of Scandinavian lore. Horned herbivores have enjoyed a rich history in the region’s culture and mythology; even the mighty god Thor himself was said to have ridden in a cart pulled by a pair of goats named Tanngniost and Tanngrisnir, who could be killed and devoured before coming back to life the following morning.

This may have inspired the subsequent mid-winter Norwegian custom of Julebukking (“yule-goating”), which involved going door to door dressed like goats while singing carols in pursuit of snacks and alcohol. Modern children have since revived this pre-Christian practice, albeit with slight alterations.

Today, yule goat figurines are a commonly-used Christmas ornament constructed from straw, with braided horns and red ribbons wrapped around their necks. Generally placed under the tree, these can also be mischievously hidden in the house of a friend or neighbor, with the understanding that it’s now their turn to go and plant it in somebody else’s home. For more information on this remarkable piece of Scandinavian heritage, head here.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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