What better time to talk about Christmas than in the throes of summer! Summer is in full swing and here in Iceland we couldn’t be happier. It doesn’t get too hot here in Iceland, but I know some of our readers are melting away in other parts of the world. So, let’s cool down, imagine the frosty chill of an Icelandic Christmas as I explain one of the more unique traditions we have here in Iceland: The 13 Yule Lads of Christmas.
Festive Yet Mischievous
When you think of Santa, what images are conjured up in your psyche? Probably the Americanized “Coca-Cola” version St. Nick. This image of the North Pole-dwelling holiday maker is ubiquitous around the world due to the inundation of American culture through media. In this depiction of Santa, he is jolly, fat, has rosy red cheeks (like he’s had one too many eggnogs) and has a twinkle in his eye. He seems affable, friendly, and again, overweight. It is interesting looking at Santa with a modern perspective, especially in regards to his weight. Like, I am genuinely worried for Coca-Cola Santa. He needs to lay off the gluten and maybe run with the reindeer. With all due respect, get it together Mr. Claus!
Joking aside, this is the Santa most people picture. Up until very recently, here in Iceland, we have had a very different take on this beautiful wintertime myth. In Iceland, we have 13 Santa-like beings. We call them the Yule-Lads. They are like Santa in that they bring gifts. The comparisons abruptly end there. If you have never heard of these mischievous Yuletide hooligans, then you are in for a treat.
The 13 Yule Lads, according to Icelandic folklore, come down from the mountains every December starting on the 12th. They arrive one after another, and they each stay for 13 days. So, if the first comes on the 12th, that means he leaves on 25th of December, if the second Yule Lad arrives on the 13th he then leaves on the 26th of December. So on and so forth. Children are told to leave their shoes in their windowsills and they will receive a gift if they have been good. Like a weird Christmastime tooth fairy, but without the teeth and wings and good nature. If the children are naughty, they receive a rotten potato. How fun!
The 13 Yule Lads of Christmas
The strangest part about the Yule Lads myth, the whole thing is weird if you think about it, are the names and the myths tied to the fictional beings. Coca-Cola Santa is benevolent and good-natured. The Yule Lads are not. According to myth, they only bring goodwill to the children who believe in them. Other than that, they are mischievous beggars who steal and pull pranks. That, and they have some of the funniest names you have ever heard of.
Here is a quick rundown of their names in Icelandic, in list form. Stekkjarstaur, Giljagaur, Stúfur, Þvörusleikir, Pottaskefill, Askasleikir, Hurðaskellir, Skyrgámur, Bjúgnakrækir, Gluggagægir, Gáttaþefur, Ketkrókur, Kertasníkir.
If you don’t speak Icelandic, these probably seem like run-of-the-mill nonsensical nordic names. However, if you do speak the language, then you probably have picked up on how unusual these names are. Here are their English translations: Sheep-Cote Clod, Gully Gawk, Stubby, Spoon-Licker, Pot-Scraper, Bowl-Licker, Door-Slammer, Skyr-Gobbler, Sausage-Swiper, Window-Peeper, Doorway-Sniffer, Meat-Hook, and Candle-Stealer.
It is right about now that you are super confused. Don’t worry. I will elaborate on the names.
Icelandic Yule Lads
First off, on a personal note: I deeply relate to Skyr-Gobbler and Sausage-Swiper. Sausages are fantastic, and so is Skyr, and as such, I have no criticism for either of these Lads. All things considered these are great names and they are probably great people. Anyway, the others are not so great (and frankly, don’t age well). All of the Yule Lad’s names directly relate to what they do during the Yuletide or Christmas.
For instance, Pot-Scraper, well, he licks pots and steals leftovers. Spoon-Licker steals spoons to lick the remaining food off of. Guys, again, a moment of honesty here: I have no problem with these guys either. I think we have all had a couple of late nights where we have turned into either Pot-scraper and Spoon-licker. Not saying that it is appropriate all the time, but waste not, want not!
The ones that are a little strange are Window-Peeper and Doorway-Sniffer. These two guys supposedly arrive on the 21st and 22nd of December respectively, and they are a bit creepy by modern standards. The Yule Lads are based in antiquity, and they probably had some pretty relevant meanings back then. Now, they are about an inch away from a felony offense. Feel free to stay out of my doorways and windows. Thanks.
The Naughtiest Yule Lads
The most confusing names for foreigners to discern there meaning from are Sheep-Cote Clod, Gully Gawk, and Stubby. I will enlighten you as to their meanings.
Sheep-Cote Clod is the first to arrive, and he signals the beginning of the holiday season. His name basically means that he harasses sheep and tries to steal their milk. He’s a pretty easy target to hit, because his legs are incredibly stiff, so he can’t run very fast. The irony is palpable because it’s really hard for slow runners to steal milk.
Gully Gawk is a naughty fellow who hides in a gully (a ravine made by water) and waits to steal cow’s milk. Not much more to him than that. A real one-dimensional Yule Lad. Pretty tame even by Icelandic standards.
Lastly, there is Stubby. He sneaks around and steals pans so that he can take the leftover crust off of them to eat. Also, his name is an indicator of his height. Stubby is as his name sounds: really stubby. Like Gully Gawk, there’s not much to Stubby. I’ll stick to my more relatable sausage-snatchers and Skyr-gobblers if you don’t mind.
Do the Yule Lads have a mother? Yes, her name is Grýla
Now, what would this myth be without some horrifying, terrible, antiquated part associated with it? I have saved the scariest part for last: Grýla, the Yule Lads’ mother. Her legend has terrified Icelandic children for an untold amount of Christmases.
According to legend, Grýla is a giantess who live in the mountains with her husband. Initially, she wasn’t associated with the Yule Lads, but over time the two myths blended together. Grýla is a real gem. Her unique ability is to detect which children have been naughty throughout the year. Around Christmastime, she searches out these children to eat them. How fun!
This is obviously a relic of the past, which I can only assume parents used to frighten their children in an attempt to make them behave. It probably worked. I have the chills just writing about it. Not very Christmassy if you ask me!
Iceland’s 13 Mischievous Yule Lads
Grýla aside, the Yule Lads is a tradition that we love here in Iceland. The modern variation has deviated far from its medieval origins, and it has been revamped for the contemporary, holiday-loving family. Now they are celebrated in good fun, and the children revere the myths. All of them except Grýla. No one likes Grýla. So, hopefully, now you understand a little bit more about our holiday traditions!