Bergljót Arnalds, actress and author of numerous children’s books, has taken the Icelandic folk tale of the troll hag Grýla, the Christmas Cat, and the thirteen “Christmas lads” in a new direction. Written first in Icelandic and then translated into English by her, The Thirteen Icelandic Santas (as the Christmas lads are called in this story, and are also dressed in red suits with white trim to make them even more familiar to non-Icelandic children) has been released just in time for Christmas. For those not already familiar with the traditional Icelandic Christmas mythos: starting thirteen days before Christmas, the thirteen Christmas lads head out (a different one each day) to put presents in the shoes of good children and leave nothing for the bad children. On Christmas itself, Grýla and the Christmas Cat begin their hunt for bad children to eat. The behaviour of Icelandic children is kept in line around Christmastime not only with the promise of presents but with the threat of being murdered and eaten by a she-troll and a giant cat. Unlike Saint Nicholas, the Christmas lads are no saints, but they are more mischievous than malicious – they’ll slam your doors, peep in your windows, or eat all your skyr, but they won’t butcher your children.
Arnalds’ story begins with a very hungry Grýla, who has not had any children to eat for the past three years, as Icelandic children have been having an exceptional good behaviour streak. Even her cat is starving. What’s to be done? Although not readily obvious, Grýla begins to sabotage the Santas. One by one, each Santa is prevented from going downtown to deliver presents to children because of some mishap or another – Spoon Licker, for example, eats a dough which Grýla made especially for him and is crippled by the ensuing stomach cramps and flatulence.
Their efforts to perform their Christmasly duties are thwarted, the children still aren’t getting any presents but – in a twist reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas – the children refuse to act badly even though they’ve received no presents. Probably because, presents or not, they don’t want to be eaten, but that’s just my guess. With the arrival of Christmas and the absence of any bad children to eat, Grýla cracks under the pressure and confesses her sabotage to the Santas in a fit of tears. The Santas are, of course, forgiving but ask for her help in delivering 13 days’ worth of presents. In a very un-Grinch-like manner, Grýla muses, “Well, at least it would be a change from listening to the rumbling stomach of the Christmas Cat and her own nagging, echoing in the cave.” So at least our Grýla stays true to form, and isn’t suddenly overcome with the Christmas Spirit.
The illustrations, rendered by Frédéric Boullet, are bright and cheerful, and although the backgrounds are somewhat flat, the little mice scampering around and doing something different on every page are entertaining enough.
Arnalds should be commended for taking a normally dour story and putting greater emphasis on its lighter, more entertaining aspects, despite how some adults may react to her treatment. While we adults might think it’s a shame that the Brothers Grimm stories have been watered down, for example, the original version of Little Red Riding Hood would more than likely traumatise a small child. Her efforts to make the “Santas” more easily identifiable by non-Icelandic children, as opposed to being a strict traditionalist, are also worth noting.
Overall, The Thirteen Icelandic Santas makes for an entertaining, often humorous, read (although you may have to explain to your child what certain words, like “presentiment,” mean) that strikes a fair balance between the traditional folk tale and a modern children’s story.