Christmas time in Iceland can be a scary time for small children, they must watch out how they go, not only how they behave!
Iceland does not have one Santa Claus – instead, there are 13 Yule Lads ,Jólasveinar, who seem to be half trolls. Back in the day they were menacing creatures who for years took delight in play tricks on people and pillaging food items from homes and farms. Sometimes they were accompanied by their mother and the Christmas Cat, who like to eat children.
The story has it that they live in the mountains and venture to the lowlands in December when food starts to run short. Then they sneak into children’s bedrooms after dark during the thirteen nights leading up to Christmas Eve and leave little presents in children’s shoes (which are placed on their bedroom windowsills) if they have behaved , something like a book , chocolate , Christmas decoration – or a rotten potatoes if they have been naughty. But they were not always this nice, far from it.
The Yule Lads’ names reflect their special talents, look or appetite. One is called Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod), another Skyrgámur (Skyr Gobbler), another Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer), Kertasnýkir (Candle Stealer), and so on.
An interesting fact – Despite his reputation, Candle Stealer was recently voted the favourite of all the Yule lads in Iceland. Even though he steals candles to eat them (in the olden days candles were made of animal fat), he seems to be the most generous of the bunch. This might have something to do with him arriving last, on the morning of Christmas Eve.
The Yule Lads have a ferocious mother called Grýla. She likes to eat children, especially ones that do not behave, or whom she might stumble across outside after dark. The accounts of her ugliness are numerous, she is often described with many tails, horns, hooves, and very sharp teeth. You definitely don’t want to meet her; she carries a large black sack to bundle children into to take back to her cave to feast on! Best to go to bed early during the month of Dec in Iceland, draw the curtains and stay safe, cosy and warm inside.
Grýla’s husband is called Leppalúði. He does not seem to do much at all and is quite lazy though he sometimes assists his wife in abducting children.
Grýla has a huge cat called Jólakötturinn – the Christmas Cat – which eats children who do not get new clothes for Christmas, fresh clothes make it harder for him to smell them. A poem was written about him in 1932, which most Icelanders know, and which was recorded as a song by one of Iceland’s most famous musicians, Björk. Large statues of the Jólakötturinn can be seen in Reykjavík and Akureyri in the main town squares during the festive season, giant visual reminders for children, to remember to behave and to ask for new clothes for Christmas!
Only the well-behaved Yule Lads are allowed near children. They have many brothers and sisters who are more aggressive, such as Lungnaslettir (Lung Flapper). He walks around with wet sheep lungs and hits those who get in his way.
Through the years the Yule lads have become milder, morphing into human-like creatures who are still mischievous, and in recent years started to hand out presents as a thank you for the items they stole from homes.
In December some can even be seen sneaking into and taking their annual bath at The Nature Baths in the area of Mývatn, a geothermal pool in the north of Iceland!
The Yule Lads only travel one at a time. They arrive over thirteen days, and so take thirteen days to leave. The first leaves on the 25 December and the last on 6 January, the last day of Christmas.