If in Iceland there is a well-known museum of witchcraft, you probably do not know yet these bizarre characters related to the Icelandic Christmas tradition. A few days ago, I introduced you to Krampus, Santa’s horned helpers, but they are not the only characters who create a Christmas “a few” different to the one we are all used to.
The Icelandic Christmas period is an interesting mix of religious practice and traditional folklore, and as many countries do, people celebrates mostly with good food and gifts to loved ones. But unlike most countries that have a single Santa Claus, Icelandic children are “lucky” enough to be visited by 13 Yule Lads!
One of Iceland’s most renowned figures associated with Christmas is Gryla, a giant troll who is in a perpetual bad mood due to her insatiable hunger…for children! From a relatively young age Icelandic children know the story of Grýla, like the ogress living in the Icelandic mountains. She is described as part troll and part animal and the mother of 13 precocious boys (the Yule Lads). Grýla lives in the mountains with her third husband Leppalúði, her thirteen children and a black cat.
Each Christmas, Gryla comes down from her mountain abode to hunt for bad children. She places them in a sack and drags them back to her cave where she boils them alive for her favorite stew.
Gryla’s legend has appeared in many Icelandic stories, poems and songs, and sometimes she dies at the end of the story. Gryla was not directly linked to Christmas until the seventeenth century. At that time she was only known as the mother of the thieves of Yule. His name can mean “threat” or “threatening”.
She has also thirteen sons: the Yule Lads, which are known for a particular habit or characteristic, much like the Disney version of Snow White’s seven dwarves.
Most of them are portrayed as mischievous and small criminals. Icelandic children are visited every evening from December 12th (Saint Lucia’s Eve) until December 24th, by these beings, who descend one at a time (the first is Stekkjastaur, the last is Kertasníkir) from the mountains to the village.
Icelandic children place a shoe in their bedroom window each evening, and every night one Yuletide lad visits, leaving sweets and small gifts or rotting potatoes, depending on how that particular child has behaved on the preceding day.
Then they return home, one by one, between December 25th and January 6th.
These are the 13 Thieves of Yule and their misdeeds:
–Stekkjastaur “Sheep Cote Clog”: a peg-legged sheep fancier: torments the sheep, one of its characteristics is given by its awkward gait due to the wooden legs.
– Giljagaur “Gully Hawk”: it hides in the irrigation canals, and then sneaks into the stables, waiting for an opportune moment to lick the foam off the milk in the milking buckets.
– Stúfur “Stubby”: particularly short, steals the pots to eat the anointed one remaining on it.
– Þvörusleikir “Spoon Licker,” a licker and thief of spoons.
– Pottaskefill “Pot Scraper” who is a petty thief of leftovers.
–Askasleikir “Bowl Licker” who hides under your bed and waits for you to absentmindedly put down your bowl so he can steal and lick it.
– Hurðaskellir “Door Slammer” who slams doors all night and screaming to terrorize people.
– Skyrgámur “Skyr Gobbler”, who eats “skyr”, an Icelandic product similar to yogurt.
– Bjúgnakrækir “Sausage Swiper” who hides among the roof beams, to steal the sausages that must be smoked.
– Gluggagægir “Window Peeper” who watches you from the windows, looking for something to steal.
– Gáttaþefur “Doorway Sniffer” who uses his incredibly large nose to sniff through doors to find bread. He has a very fine smell that he uses to identify laufabrauð, a traditional Icelandic Christmas sweets.
– Ketkrókur “Meat Hook” who always brings a hook along with him so he can steal meat.
– Kertasníkir “Candle Stealer” who follows children around so he can steal their candles, leaving them in the dark. Candles are made of lard during the Christmas period.
And if the family members are not enough … there is also the Yule Cat! He is the pet of both Gryla and The Yule Lads, and his prey consists of both children and adults. Unlike the other Christmas monsters, this cat does not care about your misdeeds during the year. The only insurance against being torn apart and eaten by this giant feline is receiving an article of new clothing for Christmas.
According to old Icelandic folklore, every Icelander must receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas, and the cat on Christmas Eve eats anyone who doesn’t follow this simple rule.
Shop wisely! Your age is not important: if you go around sloppy, you’re an easy prey!