Iceland Mag

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Iceland Mag

Culture

Instead of a friendly Santa Iceland has 13 mischievous Yule lads and an evil Christmas Cat

By Staff

  • Bjúgnakrækir, Sausage-swiper Descended from trolls, the Icelandic Yule lads have very little in common with the Christian saint, turned red-clad industrialist living at the North Pole. Photo/The Icelandic National Museum.

One of the things which make Christmas in Iceland a little different is the fact that the jolly gift-giving Santa Claus, dressed in red, only plays a minor role in the festivities. In his place Iceland has a small army of Yule lads, trolls and Christmas monsters who ensure that everyone gets into the spirit of the Holidays. And none of these Icelandic Christmas creatures behaves in the way we are used to.

No Santa: 13 trolls, a child-eating ogress and a monster cat
The Yule lads (Jólasveinar) are trolls who live in undisclosed locations in the mountains or highlands, but come to town, one by one, during December. The total number of the Yule lads varies in old stories, but in the 19th and early 20th century the tradition of 13 lads became universal. This means that the first Yule lad comes to town in the early morning of December 12 and the last on the 24th. They then depart in the same order as they arrive, each spending 13 days with us humans.

The Yule lads’ mother, the ogress Grýla can also be expected to make an appearance to capture naughty children, stuff them into her bag and take them to her mountain lair where she then proceeds to eat them. Another evil Chrisstmas spirit is the horrible „Christmas Cat“: A giant cat which shows up during the night after Christmas Eve to eat children who don‘t get any new pieces of clothing for Christmas!

From a life of crime to gift giving
Traditionally the Yule lads behaved as you would expect trolls to behave, but during the 20th century they were gradually civilized as they picked up the gift-giving habits of their foreign colleagues. Now Icelandic children await the coming of the Yule lads with great anticipation, leaving their shoe on the window sill of their room, as each Yule lads bring with it small treats for children who have been good, while leaving old potatoes with those who have been naughty.

The Yule lads still dress up in „traditional“ peasants garb, wool and sheepskins, but while the Yule lads have picked up new, more civilized habits, they maintain their old names and these give us an idea into their „true“ nature! With the exception of Door Slammer and Window Peeker, who spend their time annoying people, the each Yule lad specializes in stealing a particular item.

Listed in the order in which they appear in town:
1. Stekkjastaur, Stiff legs or Sheep-Cote Clod: Has long, stiff legs, and steals milk by suckling farmers’ ewes,
2. Giljagaur, Gully Gawk: Hides in gullies above town, then steals milk from cowsheds
3. Stúfur, Stubby: Small and short, steals pots and pans and eats leftovers.
4. Þvörusleikir, Spoon Licker: Portrayed as long and thin. Steals unwashed spoons, which he licks clean.
5. Pottaskefill, Pot Scraper: Steals unwashed pots, and licks them clean.
6. Askasleikir, Bowl Licker: Steals unattended food bowls which he then licks clean.
7. Hurðaskellir, Door Slammer: Slams doors which are kept ajar at night, keeping people awake.
8. Skyrgámur, Skyr Gobbler: Steals skyr from the pantry.
9. Bjúgnakrækir, Sausage Swiper: Hides in the rafters to snatch sausages which are hung up for smoking.
10. Gluggagægir, Window Peeper: Lies outside the house, peeking through windows,
11. Gáttaþefur, Door Sniffer: Has a huge nose to sniff out where people are baking, then steals cakes and cookies.
12. Ketkrókur, Meat Hook: Steals meat, Hangikjöt, using a long hook.
13. Kertasníkir, Candle Beggar: Steals candles from children.

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