Mag
Articles
The Yuletide Lads Rise To Christmas Stardom

The Yuletide Lads Rise To Christmas Stardom

Published December 20, 2010

In Iceland, Santa Claus doesn’t live on the North Pole. He doesn’t come to town on a sleigh guided by flying reindeer. He doesn’t squeeze down chimneys delivering presents, and he doesn’t eat milk and cookies. In fact, in Iceland, there is no Santa Claus. On the contrary, there are thirteen jólasveinar, which is more accurately translated to “Yuletide lads” rather than “Santa Clauses”. These mischievous country bumpkins live in the mountains and walk to town, one by one for thirteen days leading up to Christmas Eve. In town, they peep into windows, slam doors, gobble up skyr, steal sausages and candles, scrape leftovers from pots, lick bowls and spoons, and harass sheep.  
While they may seem grim in comparison to the jolly grandfather-like counterpart who cheerfully “Ho ho hos,” the Yuletide lads have actually softened considerably from their far more sinister past. Iceland’s leading authority on Christmas, Árni Björnsson, explains that folktales naturally change. “When the Yuletide lads are first mentioned in the 17th century, they are child-eating trolls,” he says. “Then two hundred years later, in the 19th century, they aren’t really trolls anymore, but they are still ugly. They don’t eat children, but they still steal food.” Then finally, in the 20th century, they are still mischievous, but they begin leaving small gifts for kids who put their shoe in the window.
THE CLASH OF THE SANTAS
The story of how the Yuletide lads came to be the semi-nice, red-clad, gift-bearing staples of Christmas can be explained by some major changes in Icelandic society. The first of which is when Denmark’s monopoly on trade with Iceland was lifted in the mid 19th century. About half a century later, as a result of their newfound free trade, commerce in Iceland took off. Christmas markets sprouted up in Reykjavík and Icelanders began selling Christmas goods for the first time. It was then that Icelanders were also exposed to pictures of the Danish and German varieties of the Santa Claus who carried a bag full of gifts. “Those images were much debated in Iceland because those good guys who brought gifts for the kids were called ‘jólasveinar,’ and the old people in Iceland said this couldn’t be right because the ‘jólasveinar’ were mean and ate kids.”
So began the tug of war between the different Santas, a debate, which culminated in another revolution, Árni says, when the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service was founded in 1930. “Christmas was coming, and there was supposed to be a Christmas programme for kids,” he explains. “There was a lot of discussion about what to do and the question arose, if the Yuletide lads come on the radio, should they be the old mean Yuletide lads? Or should they have the new jolly variety of Santa?”
Árni continues: “It was out of these discussions that the Icelandic Yuletide lads formally became thirteen and not one, and although they weren’t malicious or dangerous as they had been in the past, they were still mischievous.”
GIFT BEARING CELEBRITIES
The Yuletide lads really gained their Christmas fame after their appearance on the radio. “Although they couldn’t see the Yuletide lads, kids could hear them talking to and singing with other kids who got to be guests on the programme,” Árni says. “It was then that parents started ordering them for Christmas parties and the decision was made to dress them in the red outfit of the European version of Santa.”
Today, the Yuletide lads bring small gifts to children who put their shoe in their windowsill for thirteen days before Christmas. However, their job description didn’t expand to gift giving until the second half of the 20th century when the practice became widespread. “It comes from an old European tradition practiced in port cities, such as Hamburg and Amsterdam,” Árni says. “In those cities, Saint Nicholas, who is really the prototype of the American Santa Clause, was naturally a popular figure as the patron saint of both sailors and kids. It happened that kids put their shoe, which symbolized a “ship,” in the window on December 6, and the protector Saint Nicholas would visit them in the night and leave them a small gift.”
When Icelandic fishermen saw the custom around 1930, they started doing it for their own kids in Iceland. Soon, they started doing it every Sunday of the Advent. “As you know, Icelanders can be pretty crazy,” Árni adds, “So by 1960, it exploded as a widespread phenomena wherein some kids received gifts every night in December.”
REIGNING IN THE YULETIDE LADS
However, the excessive practice led to problems in play schools around Iceland. “I started working at the National Museum in 1969 and old women—grandmas—would call me and complain that this thing with the shoe was terrible,” Árni recalls. “Kids would show up to school and compare gifts, leading some kids to go home crying, ‘why isn’t Santa nice to me?’”
Árni told the grandmas that he wasn’t a policeman and he couldn’t ban anything, but that he would get in touch with the day care workers association and preschool teachers to discuss whether something could be done. “We decided that we would try to change the practice, which had grown out of control,” Árni says. “On my weekly radio show about folklore, I suggested that the Yuletide lads only bring gifts during the thirteen days before Christmas, and that the gift should always be something small, like chocolate.”
“Our effort was successful, and since then, they have remained fairly established in their ways,” Árni says, adding that every year since 1988, the Yuletide lads have visited the National Museum of Iceland in their everyday woolen garb, preserving their pre-1930 image for future generations of youngsters.
Note: The accompanying photograph shows Árni Björnsson in the guise of Gluggagægir.



Mag
Articles
<?php the_title(); ?>

Best Place To Cool Off On One Of Those Icelandic Scorchers

by

It’s 15 degrees. Fahrenheit? No, Celsius. Shorts weather? Fuck you, it’s underwear weather. The sun bears down on a thick, humid Reykjavík day. The sunbathers in Austurvöllur have burnt to a crisp. You’re parched, you’re sweaty. Does anywhere in this country have air conditioning? You look out to the harbour, considering a dip, but no—with all those ships, it just doesn’t seem safe…Where do you go? What do you do? But then common sense kicks in. “Duh,” you think, and your feet follow. You thought you could get away with not wearing deodorant in Iceland? You stink. You’re a zombie

Mag
Articles
<?php the_title(); ?>

Keeping Reykjavík Preened

by

It’s no secret that Icelanders take their hair very seriously. For years, Rauðhetta og úlfurinn has been the go-to spot for Icelanders looking to sport a fresh cut. As four-time winners of our annual ‘Best Place To Get A Trendy Haircut’ award, it’s clear that the experts at the Skólavörðustígur studio know how to chop some locks. According to salon manager Sandra Olgeirsdóttir, being the best at trendy haircuts is all about practice and this salon has been doing that for the last 17 years. In addition to offering clients magazines and massages, she says they always try to figure

Mag
Articles
<?php the_title(); ?>

“The Fag-End Of Civilization”

by

It is no secret that the village of Reykjavík was not only a tiny place in the eyes of 19th century tourists in Iceland but also a “filthy” and “desolate” shantytown. Iceland was a poor and isolated country back then. By 1900 the capital had only around 6,000 inhabitants (always described as “souls”) which all lived in the city centre of today. The foreign visitors in the 19th century were mostly rich Europeans who were shocked by the poverty and extreme hardships faced by Icelandic people. These tourists mostly wrote about the ugliness and are sometimes merciful in their descriptions.

Mag
Articles
<?php the_title(); ?>

The Best Place In The World To Be A Woman?

by

Women are reportedly more equal to men in Iceland than any other place in the world. But does this mean that we have reached the goal of gender equality? In international media and discourse, Iceland is often portrayed as the best place to be a woman. We certainly use it to market ourselves to tourists and boast of it in our own media. This is in large part due to the recognition we have received from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. For four years in a row now, Iceland has been ranked as number one on the

Mag
Articles
<?php the_title(); ?>

Searching For The Best Public Bathroom

by

Something that always seems to be missing in reviews of restaurants, bars, cafés and whatnot, is the bathroom. Perhaps it is a taboo subject? But when you think about it, the flowery potpourri smell in the bathroom might make up for a mediocre cup of coffee or a semi-flat beer and stumbling upon a clogged toilet could make you forget about all the great food and service you just got. What good is a good soup if your dining experience is shadowed by a dirty bathroom? When writing these reviews, I went to some of Reykjavík’s most popular cafés to

Mag
Articles
<?php the_title(); ?>

The Best Way To Hit 12 Bars In 12 Hours!

by

We at the Grapevine do not encourage people to drink to excess, but if you ever wanted to have 12 drinks at 12 bars in 12 hours, we’ve mapped out the best way to do that! Most bars in Reykjavík have a happy hour, and if you align them in the correct order on a Friday, you can get a dozen in a row. If you give yourself 15–20 minutes to get from place to place, we reckon you should be able to make it. You’ll need to have a friend with you though, as a few places on the

Show Me More!