If you arent’t lucky enough to have been born in Iceland, or not have visited the island through a Christmas season, you probably won’t have never heard of the Yule Lads.
One by one they’re said to visit children in the 13 days leading to Christmas.
Children leave their shoes on the window, and if they’re good they’re filled with candy and toys, while if they’re bad they get a raw potato. They’re also to leave specific treats for each lad, corresponding to his personality: there’s Stekkjarstaur, translated as Sheep Worrier, who gets milk, but also Pvoruskleikir, or Spoon Licker, who prefers spoons covered with batter.
The Yule Lads share a lot of facts with other Christmas characters aimed at keeping children in line: be good and you get toys and sweets, be bad and you get coal, a potato, or possibly put in a sack by a local version of Krampus. But apparently the lads are actually terrifying and destructive creatures. And, in addition, they’re real, like the hidden people, or Huldufólk, creatures that according to local folklore live in another dimension, but very close to us. There is a theory that they were the dirty, strange children of Eve that she hid from God, and when God discovered her secrets, condemned them to an alternate world, while others say they are fallen angels.
Icelanders take the hidden folk very seriously, and there are numerous accounts of locals interacting with them. Interestingly, it seems that 54 percent of Icelanders believe they are real, and so they are more than just a myth.
Christianity came to Iceland around the year 1000 AD, after the King of Norway decreed everyone should be Christian and sent missionaries to convert the land. Of course this didn’t wipe out the Icelandic traditions that already existed, but it allowed them to merge with Christian traditions. Moreover, the Christians were none too taken with the idea of thieving trolls roaming the mountains. A 16th century law even said that “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment,” and thus in 1746, a public decree was issued prohibiting parents from scaring their kids with stories of the Yule Lads or similar.
Of course, as with many tales of folklore’s creatures, there are conflicting accounts about the Yule Lads. Some say there were 80 of them, some 13, all with different names and different personalities. On current days, they are depicted as pranksters who would steal food and pans…