Iceland's 13 Yule Lads
If you think about it, most modern Christmas myths/beliefs are pretty strange. Take for example the mainstream Santa Claus story: he’s a big, fat, magical man that flies through the sky in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer (one of which known for having a glowing nose) bringing toys to the children of the world all in one night by sliding down their chimneys. Put in this way, it sounds pretty strange. But at least it’s all kept fun and jovial with Santa.
Enter the Christmas Cat
And that’s not all folks. Iceland also has the “Christmas cat.” Sounds harmless, right? Nope. This Yule Cat is known as an enormous, monstrous feline that eats any poor soul that doesn’t receive new clothes before Christmas Eve. This was typically used as incentive for the workers of wool mills to finish the production of the fall wool before Christmas, lest they would be eaten. Let he who hath understanding reckon the wrath of the yule cat! It is somewhat along the lines of Lewis Carrol's Cheshire Cat, except much worse!
The 13 Yule Lads
In Iceland, things take a somewhat darker turn. Iceland’s 13 Yule Lads, for most of their history, were NOT so nice. Before the more modern version of Santa and Christmas reached Iceland’s frosty shores, Icelanders had 13 troll-like fellows that were just downright nasty. Each is dedicated to a particular kind of mischief such as thieving, spying and hiding. If that weren’t enough, the mother of the Yule Lads was an enormous, ugly woman who might sneak into the homes of children, kidnap them, and eat them!
1. Stekkjarstaur, also known as “Gimpy.” He is known for harassing local sheep to suckle some milk but his stiff peg legs impair him somewhat during his mischief.
2. Giljagaur, or Gully Gawk, who hides in gullies awaiting the opportunity to sneak into cowsheds and steal milk.
3. Then Stúfur, or Stubby, who is known for his short size and tendency to steal pans and eat any leftovers.
4. Þvörusleikir, or Spoon-Licker who is known for being extremely thin and stealing wooden spoons to lick any remaining food left on them.
5. Pottaskefill, or pot-scraper, steals leftovers from pots
6. Askasleikir, or bowl licker, hides under beds and waits for someone to put down a bowl and then steals it
7. Hurðaskellir, or door slammer, can be quite annoying for those that are sleeping because wakes people up by slamming doors, especially at night.
8. Skyrgámur has a burning love for skyr, an Icelandic food similar to yogurt, (see more in our post on the Iceland Rovers blog on the top 5 Icelandic foods) and is known to steal it from people's homes. Where’s all the skyr?!
9. Bjúgnakrækir, or Sausage-Swiper, who likes to hide in the rafters and steal sausages that are being smoked.
10. Next comes Gluggagægir, or Window-Peeper, who is known to look into windows in search of things to steal.
11. Gáttaþefur, or Doorway-Sniffer, who is said to have an abnormally large nose which he uses to sniff out laufabrauð, a thin, decorative, Icelandic, holiday bread.
12. Then comes Ketkrókur, or Meat-Hook, who uses a hook to steal meat.
13. Lastly is Kertasníkir, or Candle-Stealer, who follows children to steal their candles.
Each Yule Lad terrorizes the neighbourhood for 12 days. They arrive sequentiually and leave sequentially: Stekkjarstaur the Sheep-Cote Clod arriving December 12th and leaving Christmas Eve, ending with Kertasníkir the candle stealer arriving on christmas eve and leaving on january 6th. January 6th happens to be the day that all of the christmas decorations are taken down and the festive period comes to an end. Children are rewarded or punished, with presents or rotten potatoes in the shoes left on their windowsills each day on the 12 days leading up to christmas.
A Theory on the Icelandic Yule Lads, and Going Full Circle
So as you can see, the stories of the Yule Lads and their rather rude family members are, in some ways, genuinely scary. Maybe they were so harsh because Iceland was such a harsh place. Iceland endured many hardships through it’s relatively short history, and it is at least possible that the Yule Lads and their penchant for stealing mostly food and other resources has something to do with the want that many experienced for centuries here on this Island. Needless to say, things are every different today, but the traditions remain. Long may they live on!
Nowadays however, the Yule Lads have come full circle, and their tone has softened in recent decades, and they are now generally seen as extensions of Santa. Merry Christmas everyone and make sure you get some clothes this year, just in case the Christmas cat story has any truth to it!
For all of here at Icelandic Mountain Guides, Merry Christmas! Or, as we say in Iceland, gleðileg jól!
About the Author
IMG Staff Writer
An anonymous but well informed member of our team that enjoys sharing their knowledge of Iceland & Greenland’s stunning nature.
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