CHRISTMAS IS A LITTLE DIFFERENT IN ICELAND… MEET THE YULE LADS!
Christmas is alive and well in Iceland, steeped in folklore and a dash of old myths. A few notable characters peek their heads about come Christmas season, but none so notable that the Yule Lads.
The Yule Lads are Iceland’s answer to Santa—but unlike other traditions, there’s not just one Santa, but thirteen!
THIRTEEN YULE LADS
The Lads are thirteen mischievous troublemakers who cause havoc in the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. Parents used to tell stories of them to children as a way to encourage good behavior. Their transgressions are usually benign, such as stealing sausages or licking spoons from unsuspecting humans. But, once upon a time, they used to be much worse—terrible trolls who terrorized children! It wasn’t until 1746, when a law prohibited parents from scaring their kids, that the stories transformed them into (relatively harmless) mischief-makers that we know and love today.
LEGENDS & FOLKLORE
Several legends surround the Yule Lads. Some say they are descended from elves or hidden folk. Other say they are children of Eve or fallen angels. The most popular story, though, is that they are the sons of the ogressGrýla. When it’s not Christmastime, the whole family lives together in Dimmuborgir near Lake Myvatn in North Iceland.
Old Christmas folklore details the horror of Grýla, the Lads’ mother, who boils naughty children alive. This terrible ogress is a part troll and part beast, and sometimes possesses horns and hooves.She kidnaps children in a sack and takes them home to devour them—except if they are good children, then she’s powerless in the face of their innocence.Grýladates back to the 13th century; she was a nature troll before she became associated with Christmas in the 17th century.There is also the black Christmas Cat, who eats anyone not wearing at least one new piece of clothing on Christmas Eve.
PAINTING BY SHANNON CONNOR
Though it’s not known how the tradition of 13 Yule Lads started, it may date back to pagan times.Young and celebrating Icelanders dressed up in masks and visited all the farms come Christmas. As days grew darker and smothered in snow, more people stayed near the home. They might have whispered each other tales over a hearth fire, about spirits deep in the woods and the mountains. Tales of fearsome natural spirits eventually became tales of supernatural tricksters.
Why the number thirteen? Here we have a theory from Christian Iceland. It’s unknown, but speculation surrounds the Julian Calendar. In the Enlightenment period, the calendar showed the winter solstice as December 13, which is a few days off from the proper date December 21. The answer was to remove thirteen days off the calendar. People were now forced to celebrate the midwinter festival on a different date. The theory is that people eventually grew to honor all the days between their old winter solstice and their new Christmas.
MISCHIEF & MAYHEM
The Yule Lads cause all sorts of mischief, and usually get blamed for troubles in December. Most notorious is the break-in of Bæjarins Beztu Hot Dog Cart, which is burglarized every few years and has a few hundred sausages stolen (thanks to the Lad called Sausage Swiper).
They begin to arrive among humans with December 12, when Sheep-Cote Clod descends from the mountains. Each successive night, a new brother comes down to cause his own mischief. On December 24 the last brother, Candle Beggar, descends to steal his waxen trophies. On Christmas Day, they reverse their migration. They slowly retreat back to the mountains, again one by one each night, until January 6th when they are back in their mountainous home.
Each Yule Lad has their own personality and particular quirk that gives them their name:
Sheep-Cote Clod, who suckles yews in farmer’s sheep sheds.
Gully Gawk, who steals foam from buckets of cow milk.
Stubby, who’s short and steals food from frying pans.
Spoon Licker, who…well…licks spoons.
Pot Licker, who steals unwashed pots and licks them clean.
Bowl Licker, who steals bowls of food from under the bed.
Door Slammer, who slams doors.
Skyr Gobbler, who eats up all the skyr, a local Icelandic yogurt.
Sausage Swiper, who steals sausages.
Window Peeper, who likes to creep outside windows.
Door Sniffer, who has an insatiable appetite for stolen baked goods.
Meat Hook, who steals meat left out—his favorite is smoked lamb.
Candle Beggar, who steals candles.
But there’s one thing the Yule Lads do that redeems their naughty behavior. Children leave their shoes on the windowsill on Christmas Eve—if they’re good, the Yule Lads fill the shoes with candy. But if the children are bad, candy is swapped for a raw potato.
A well-known poem “Jólasveinavísur,” written by Jóhannes frá Kötlum and translated by Hallberg Hallmundsson reads as follows:
Let me tell the story
of the lads of few charms,
who once upon a time
used to visit our farms.
They came from the mountains,
as many of you know,
in a long single file
to the farmsteads below.
Grýla was their mother
– she gave them ogre milk –
and the father Leppalúdi;
a loathsome ilk.
They were called the Yuletide lads
– at Yuletide they were due –
and always came one by one,
not ever two by two.
these gents in their prime
didn’t want to irk people
all at one time.
Creeping up, all stealth,
they unlocked the door.
The kitchen and the pantry
they came looking for.
They hid where they could,
with a cunning look or sneer,
ready with their pranks
when people weren’t near.
And even when they were seen,
they weren’t loath to roam
and play their tricks – disturbing
the peace of the home.
PHOTO BY HAFSTEINN ROBERTSSON
Have you seen evidence of the pranksters yet in Iceland? Let me know in the comments!
Free Roamer & Travel Writer Extraordinaire