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Iceland’s Terrifying Christmas Traditions

Iceland’s Terrifying Christmas Traditions

Although Christmas is generally considered the most joyous of holidays, it does generate its share of stress. The pressure of Christmas shopping, meal planning, and holiday travel can cause anxiety for even the sturdiest of souls. If you live in Iceland, you have more than these relatively-mundane things to put you on edge. Icelandic Christmas traditions are downright terrifying!

The holiday horrors all start thirteen days before Christmas when the Yule Lads start their reign of terror. The Yule Lads are thirteen pranksters whose antics range from swiping yogurt to slamming doors in the middle of the night to wake people up. Stekkjarstaur is the first one to show up, spending the days between December 12 and Christmas harassing sheep. Personally, we are more frightened of Þvörusleikir. This malnourished Yule Lad walks the land beginning on December 15, looking for spoons to lick. For more information about the Yule Lads, together with a list that describes each one and when to expect him, check out this post.

The Yule Lads can attribute their deplorable habits to bad parenting. They are the children of Grýla, a giantess whose appearance is described as enormous and repulsive. While it is never a good idea to judge a person on the basis of appearance, it is fair to say that Grýla’s personality is at least as ugly as her face.

Grýla, whose name translates loosely to “growler,” would be among these, showing up with a horned tail and a bag into which she would toss naughty children.

Grýla spends most of the year living in a cave. During the holiday season, she feels a bit more sociable and interacts with regular people. She disguises herself as a beggar, but don’t be fooled if she approaches you. One clue that it’s her would be that she’s nearly twice as tall as any other person on the street and can sometimes be seen sporting a horned tail. The other hint that you’re talking to her will come when she asks you to hand over the naughty children in your household so she can cook them into a tasty stew.

Grýla seems to have an inner compass that navigates her toward disobedient children (as opposed to our experience, where disobedient children come looking for us — typically when we’re in a movie theater or on a long airplane ride). If she can get her hands on any rule-breaking ankle-biters, she puts them in the massive sack she carries over her shoulder until she begins to feel a bit peckish.

If Grýla approaches you, there are three ways to get rid of her. You can give her food, hoping that will satisfy her hunger. You can chase her away. The third option, of course, is to hand over those pesky little crumb-crunchers who refuse to obey. According to legend, there is never a shortage of food for Grýla. This much, at least, we are certain is true.

Figures of Grýla and her husband Leppalúði on the main street of Akureyri, Iceland

Grýla’s life has been less than ideal. She has been married three times. Like all couples, there were moments of tension and conflict. Grýla grew bored with one of her husbands, who was not paying enough attention to her. The problem was solved when she ate him. Her third husband, Leppaludi (Leppalúði), is reportedly no great catch. He is described as lazy, spending most of his time in their cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. They share their home with their sons, the Yule Lads (whose naughtiness, apparently, was not the kind that triggered their mother’s appetite). The other resident of the home is their charming little pet, the Yule Cat.

If you have children who rebel at the notion of receiving clothing as a Christmas present, but sure they know about the Yule Cat. Grýla and Leppaludi’s pet is described as a massive, lurking, vicious creature who seeks to devour children. In other words, it is a typical cat who happens to be huge.

The thing that really draws the Yule Cat’s ire is anyone who has not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. Those are the ones that really gets his tummy rumbling.

The threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was used by farmers as an who were looking for an extra incentive for their workers to finish gathering the autumn wool before the end of the year. Those who did so were rewarded with new apparel. Those who failed to deliver would have to fend for themselves against the kitty’s clothing conniption.

Of course, no good Christmas legend would be complete without a good poem to recite to children during the holiday. The English-speaking world has “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” filling children’s dreams with visions of sugarplums and encourages them to get to sleep so Santa can visit. Iceland’s counterpart, “Jólakötturinn,” likely keeps the children awake through horrifying, sleepless nights:

“Jólakötturinn”
by Jóhannes úr Kötlum

You all know the Yule Cat
And that Cat was huge indeed.
People didn’t know where he came from
Or where he went.

He opened his glaring eyes wide,
The two of them glowing bright.
It took a really brave man
To look straight into them.

‘His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back arched up high.
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.

He gave a wave of his strong tail,
He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.
Sometimes up in the valley,
Sometimes down by the shore.

He roamed at large, hungry and evil
In the freezing Yule snow.
In every home
People shuddered at his name.

If one heard a pitiful “meow”
Something evil would happen soon.
Everybody knew he hunted men
But didn’t care for mice.

He picked on the very poor
That no new garments got
For Yule – who toiled
And lived in dire need.

From them he took in one fell swoop
Their whole Yule dinner
Always eating it himself
If he possibly could.

Hence it was that the women
At their spinning wheels sat
Spinning a colorful thread

For a frock or a little sock.
Because you mustn’t let the Cat
Get hold of the little children.
They had to get something new to wear

From the grownups each year.
And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve
And the Cat peered in,
The little children stood rosy and proud

All dressed up in their new clothes.
Some had gotten an apron
And some had gotten shoes
Or something that was needed

That was all it took.
For all who got something new to wear
Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp
He then gave an awful hiss

But went on his way.
Whether he still exists I do not know.
But his visit would be in vain
If next time everybody

Got something new to wear.
Now you might be thinking of helping
Where help is needed most.
Perhaps you’ll find some children

That have nothing at all.
Perhaps searching for those
That live in a lightless world
Will give you a happy day
And a Merry, Merry Yule.


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