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 more accurately translates to “Yuletide lads” than to “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.