Published January 3, 2011
How did a child-eating ogress, thirteen mischievous yuletide lads and a creepy bogeyman crash Jesus Christ’s birthday party? Ethnologist Árni Björnsson runs through the history of the Icelandic Christmas and explains how this fascinating mix of paganism, Christianity and commercialism came to share the holiday.
JÓL : A WINTER FEAST TO COMBAT THE DARK
Let’s start with 1000, the year Christianity was adopted in Iceland. What was Christmas like?
First of all, people don’t realise that Christianity is rather young in the world. In Iceland, it was officially adopted in the year 1000, but it didn’t manifest itself in the blink of an eye. It happened that the Norwegian King threatened to forcefully convert Iceland to Christianity as he had done it in Norway, so Icelanders agreed to adopt Christianity, rationalising that it didn’t matter if they officially believed in Odin or Christ. The Bishop wasn’t appointed until 1050, and it really took a few generations for Iceland to be Christian.
As you know, we use the word “jól” for Christmas, and jól is a much older celebration, although we don’t know exactly how old. It’s a lot of guesswork at this point. Even though we have stories, they aren’t detailed. We know there was a celebration of jól, but what’s that? We don’t know exactly. It most likely fulfilled the psychological need to have good time during darkest month of the year. What we do know is that people had a good time, eating and drinking well. They probably drank beer or ale and most likely ate lamb, as the food didn’t change much in Iceland.
JÓL: HAUNTED BY SCARY SUPERNATURAL BEINGS
What about 500 years later, what was Christmas like in 1500?
By the year 1500, the Church had become rich. It was by far the biggest landowner in Iceland, with claims to fifty percent of the land. The Christmas feast was likely similar to what it had been. People generally wanted to have fresh meat on Christmas Eve, so they would feed a sheep well for the occasion. On December 25, they might have enjoyed smoked lamb. There was a great influx of imports in the 15th century, including wine, so they probably had wine as well.
There is no recorded mention of the yuletide lads at this time. They aren’t mentioned until the 17th century. However, the ogress Grýla, who is now known as their mother, is in the picture by this time. We’re not sure if she was tied to Christmas. She was usually mentioned around Christmas, but she is likely a supernatural being associated with the dark. These kinds of child-eating monsters who lurk in the dark are part of English and German stories as well.
So the yuletide lads are first mentioned in the 17th century. What’s happening with Christmas in 1600 then?
After 1600, there are a lot of changes in Icelandic society. Folklore often mirrors what’s happening in society. So, it makes sense that Grýla and the yuletide lads are grimmer during this difficult time for Icelanders. In 1602, the Danes banned Iceland from trading with countries other than Denmark, and this was tough because Iceland relied on many imported goods. To make matters worse, the colder period in Iceland also sets in around 1600. The period is referred to as “Iceland’s humiliation,” which Halldór Laxness describes in his book, ‘Iceland’s Bell.’
So, those things we call “jólavættir,” or supernatural beings of Christmas—including the yuletide lads, their ogress mother Grýla, and the Christmas cat—those elements were probably incorporated into the Christmas tradition to keep kids in line. Everyone was supposed to work hard to do all the things that had to be done before Christmas, and some people were lazy, you see. So it was said that if you weren’t diligent at working, the Christmas cat would come for you. What did the Christmas cat do? We’re not really sure. Early on there was never any mention of the cat eating kids, although the story evolved that way.
JÓL: HIJACKED BY THE TALIBAN PIETISM
In 1746, there was a regulati on banning the “foolish custom of scaring children wit h the yuletide lads and ghosts.” How does this fit into the story?
For background, first the Catholic Church came to Iceland and lasted to the mid 16th century. Then came The Reformation around the year 1600, with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which believed that the Catholic Church was amoral. Next came Lutheran Orthodoxy in the late 17th and 18th century, and the even stricter form of pietism.
Pietism was like the Taliban in Afghanistan. They banned everything. People were hardly permitted to laugh. Everyone was supposed to be thinking about the dead and afterlife. During this time, people weren’t supposed to participate in leisurely activities like card playing or dancing on Christian days. This period of pietism lasted to around 1900, although the ideas lingered longer.
I can even remember it myself as an eight year old boy in 1940. My elder brothers wanted to play cards after dinner on Christmas Eve, and my Mom forbid them—although they didn’t listen. It’s because she grew up with the rule that it was not Christian to play cards on Christmas Eve, an idea that still lived with her.
JÓL: MEETS NEW IDEAS
Moving along then to 1900 after the heyday of pietism, what’s going on?
In the mid 19th century, Iceland enjoyed free trade again. But it took an entire generation for Icelanders to learn to trade. It wasn’t until perhaps 1870 that stores started appearing in Iceland. Where we’re sitting [in a downtown Reykjavík coffeehouse], a small centre of commerce sprouted up, and if one looks at papers between 1880 and 1900, you can see advertisements for Christmas products for the first time. Still, it’s important to remember that in 1900, 80% of the population resided in the countryside, so even though there were Christmas products in Reykjavík, they hadn’t reached the majority of the country.
The year 1930 is a significant one. This is when the yuletide lads formally become thirteen and adopted the red uniform of their European counterpart, who came to Iceland in the form of pictures. In face of this nice European Santa who carries a bagful of gifts, the grim Icelandic yuletide lads softened up, quit eating children and settled for being petty criminals and pranksters.
The story of how they became thirteen has to do with the Christian belief that there were thirteen days of Christmas. Because it doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible when Jesus Christ was born, there were discrepancies between the Eastern Church in Constantinople, which said it was January 6, and the Western Church in Rome, which said it to be December 25. Alas, Rome triumphed and it was decided that January 6 would be the last day of Christmas, known widely as the Twelfth Night (Þrettándinn in Iceland). So, the number of yuletide lads was very clever, because they could come to town one by one for thirteen days until Christmas and then leave one by one until the last day of Christmas on January 6. Since then it has become a ritual. It just fit so well.
JÓL: AN EXPLOSION OF GIFTS
What about 1950 after World War II and the American occupation, did Christmas change?
Around 1900, there was a greater European influence on Christmas, but by 1950 the American influence was stronger. I moved to Reykjavík in 1947, and I remember there were a few families that were highly Americanized. They had the Santa Claus who brought gifts, but most people were really against Americanising the yuletide lads.
Regarding Christmas presents, they were unheard of—at least among the general public—until the late 19th century. People might have gotten something new to wear, like mittens or a scarf, but it was more like a Christmas bonus. The gift-giving extravaganza, which is part of today’s Christmas, took off with a boom around 1940 though.
This was first and foremost because Icelanders emerged from the war years with money after living through a long Depression. I remember the change as an eight-year-old boy. My siblings, who were working for money in Reykjavík, sent a big package to our home in the countryside. Usually one got small Christmas presents, like a small notepad and pencils, but the package was full of gifts for everyone. I had never gotten presents like that before, and we are talking about books and clothes. Since then, gifts have been a big part of Christmas.
Although Christmas is never exactly the same, it has remained fairly stable over the last few years. Only, it’s more difficult to find Christmas presents these days because everybody already has everything. Still, Christmas has always been about getting together with the family and that strong tradition still holds true.