Text by: Agata Ryszkowska
Every country that celebrates Christmas has its own traditions. Even one single country can be divided with different celebrations. Icelandic culture has that one festivity that is known within the whole country; it’s constantly cultivated and I’m taking you on a journey to introduce you this one particular Icelandic tradition.
The background story
It’s not cute, it’s not adorable but it’s definitely fun and helps to keep kids well-behaved. There are 13 Yule Lads (Jólasveinar). One of them comes to Icelandic homes each night starting on 12th December. For the children that were nice and polite they leave small gifts in their shoes left on the windowsills. But for the ones that were on the naughtier side, they leave potatoes, sometimes even rotten ones! It’s a good manner to give something in return, for example a crispy, thin bread that’s called laufabrauð (leaf bread).
But where did they came from? They’re mentioned for the first time in ‚Poem of Grýla’ from the 17th century. She has been known since the 13th century, when she was introduced in Norse mythology. She’s a giantess, described as repulsive and not the prettiest at all. She has been married three times and her last husband called Leppalúði is the father of their 13 children, the famous Yule Lads. They all live in the mountains but when the Christmas time arrives, they come down to towns to seek for naughty children. Grýla’s favorite dish is a stew with chunks of the said children.
This wonderful family is accompanied by a Yule Cat (jólakötturinn), who you can meet while strolling through downtown Reykjavik.
The cat is said to be eating all the children who don’t get anything new to wear for Christmas, no matter is they were naughty or well-mannered. So giving socks as a present is not such a bloomer after all!
Let’s get to know them
The Yule Lads used to be considered a lot less friendly than they are now. Through the centuries they have become a pop-culture attraction while waiting for Christmas to come. Their image is used on various gifts, figures, posters and temporary statues all over the country. Without further ado, let’s get to know them a little closer!
- 12th Dec – Stekkjarstaur (Sheep-Cote Clod) – likes to harass sheep by sucking milk from them. He also characterizes by having two wooden legs.
- 13th Dec – Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) – hides in gullies and specializes in stealing fresh milk from cows.
- 14th Dec – Stúfur (Stubby) – super short and super harmless as he only likes to steal pans and eat leftover crust from them.
- 15th Dec – Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker) – unlike Stúfur, he’s tall and skinny. He tries to nourish himself by stealing and licking wooden spoons (great idea).
- 16th Dec – Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper) – he’s popular thanks to his untamable urge to steal pots and eat leftovers from them.
- 17th Dec – Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker) – as creepy as it sounds, he likes to hide under beds and wait for people to put their askur (a type of bowl with a lid) on floor so he can eat from it.
- 18th Dec – Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer) – as the name suggests, he likes to wake people up by slamming door during the night.
- 19th Dec – Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler) – he just cannot control his love for skyr, an Icelandic time of yoghurt, so he steals it from people.
- 20th Dec – Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper) – likes to hide in rafters to sneak out at the right time to steal sausages that are being smokes.
- 21st Dec – Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper) – a creepy type who likes to peek inside people’s windows to see whether they have something worth stealing.
- 22nd Dec – Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer) – known for his enormous and long nose which he uses for sniffing to locate some laufabrauð.
- 23rd Dec – Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) – steals meat with his hook.
- 24th Dec – Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer) – stalks children to steal candles from them. The candles were once edible, since they were made of tallow.
As much as creepy they are, it’s quite impressive that Icelanders cultivate their tradition by turning it into something so enjoyable. They’re a unique nation that tries to protect their heritage and they’re doing it in a way that is absolutely worth taking an example of it.