If you want to understand the Icelandic Christmas tradition, here are the books you have to read.
The Sad Old Yule Cat
Icelandic Christmas is rife with tradition. It’s quite old fashioned in many ways. Everything is closed on Christmas Eve, everybody goes around to the home of family or friends to eat a smoked rack of pork. That may seem quaint, but our Christmas stories might just scare the living daylights out of you. One of the horrific characters in Icelandic Christmas tales is a freaky cat that has developed a taste for poor children that didn’t receive any new clothes for Christmas.
But one of Iceland’s most inventive artist, Brian Pilkington, doesn’t fear the Yule Cat., In this book the Yule Cat has become old, and, well, not so fierce. He has become a moth-eaten, fleabitten, lazy old geriatric that is in need of a seasonal makeover. This delightful story is ideal for children of all ages, and a perfect introduction to Icelandic Christmas.
The Creepy Yule Lads
We’re not done with Brian Pilkington on this list. He also wrote and draw this wonderful book about the weird pranksters and thieves that we Icelanders welcome into our childrens’ bedrooms 13 nights in a row. I’m of course talking about the Yule Lads. Wait, what did you think I was talking about? Don’t answer that. This is actually the book that shaped the millennial generation’s image of the Yule Lads and is a wonderful portrayal of these weird lads who lick our spoons, slam out doors and even peek into the window like a peeping tom. But they give us stuff, so it’s worth it.
Elves Are a Christmas Thing
Elves and supernatural beings are a big part of Christmas in Iceland. The elves roam around and even move from one palace (rock) to another at this time of year. If you’re lucky, you will meet them at a crossroads. Just don’t accept any gifts from them—doing so would drive you utterly insane. In this book, Jón R. Hjálmarsson retells and explains many of Iceland’s most famous folktales, bringing trolls, elves, wizards, mermen and a host of other mysterious beings to life.
Trolls and Mundane Tasks
Speaking of trolls, they are more complex creatures than you think. They’re not just roaming around waiting to be turned to stone, they live pretty complicated lives, with mundane tasks to perform and troll kids to raise. In this wonderful book that 80s kids grew up with, the best Icelandic children author of all time, Guðrún Helgadóttir, tells the wonderful tale of a troll mother and her fight with the wilderness. Our good friend Brian Pilkington drew brilliant pictures for the book, making the adventure both warm and relatable, just like Guðrún’s story.
A Simple Novella? Think again
If you’re looking for something a little more grown up, this is the book for you. Or give it to your parents. Gunnar Gunnarsson is one of Iceland’s greatest poets, and was close to winning the Nobel Prize in the 50s, only to be beaten out by Halldór Laxness. Gunnar’s Aðventa, or The Good Shepard is a simple novella telling the story of a shepherd looking for a sheep. But don’t be fooled by the simple premise—this is one of those stories with such depth at its core that it takes a lifetime to digest it. It’s one of Iceland’s great stories and has also been translated into 20 languages.
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