When you ask a child in Iceland what the Yule Lads look like, you might expect them to show you an old, Icelandic book–something as old and ancient as the tale of the Yule Lads themselves. But while the troublemaking brothers are rooted in Icelandic history, the Yule Lads have a much more recent co-parent: a Brit from Liverpool named Brian Pilkington. It is Brian’s illustrations that have come to define the appearance of these age-old characters. Trolls, giants, elves, the Yule Lads and the Yule Cat: though steeped in history, they have been renewed and redefined by Brian’s books.
Brian first came to Iceland in the 70s. Now, he spends his days in his studio in Skerjafjörður, writing stories, painting landscapes and creating wonderful folkloric illustrations—and particularly spectacular holiday images. Brian has written countless books about Icelandic Christmas. Amongst his best-known are ‘The 13 Yule Lads of Iceland’ and ‘The Yule Cat–A Seasonal Makeover’. Whilst the earliest mention of the Yule Lads can be traced back to the seventeenth-century‘ Poem of Grýla,’ the pictures Icelandic children associate with these characters today are entirely Brian’s invention.
A Christmas calling
Brian was first attracted to Icelandic Christmas stories as a kind of artistic calling. “When I first came to Iceland I was obviously very aware of what was going on at Christmas time and I realised no one else was doing anything with these characters anymore,” he explains, sitting amongst his piles of books and paintbrushes. So I figured somebody had to sit down and start doing drawings and write books about them. And if no one else was doing it, then it fell to me.”
The Yule Lads aren’t as friendly as more international Christmas characters like Santa Claus. Whilst Santa leaves presents in childrens’ stockings, the Yule Lads harass and steal: they peep through windows, lick spoons, bowls and pots, slam doors and steal skyr and sausages. Their mother, Grýla, likes eating naughty children, whilst the Yule Cat’s child-based tastes fall on those who have not been gifted any new clothes. The characters are more comparable with Dickens’s Scrooge than any jolly, laughing Father Christmas. For the same reason, Brian emphasises, they’re also more interesting to draw.
“They’re not quite as nice as Father Christmas, but they’re not hideously awful at the same time,” explains Brian. “They’re more fun to draw than a jolly Santa. Scowling expressions, tatty old clothes.” Brian doesn’t like anything “too sweet and saccharine” and finds these Icelandic characters more enjoyable precisely because they’re imperfect and therefore realistic.
In fact, Brian sees his Yule Cat illustration as a kind of self-portrait. “Because I’m grumpy and vicious, too,” he jokes, “and he’s got a beard and moustache and goatee like mine. So we’re basically the same persona.”
If you look closely at the front cover of ‘The Yule Cat–A Seasonal Makeover,’ you’ll see Brian’s reflection in the red bauble hanging from the Yule Cat’s neck: bespectacled, holding a paintbrush, glinting in line with the Yule Cat’s disgruntled frown. There’s something oddly relatable about the mischievous nature of Iceland’s Christmas characters, then. It’s not a tradition that aspires to perfect sweetness: the wry darkness is appealing.
Nostalgia & reinvention
Of course, writing for children is an inherently nostalgic act that fits well with the nostalgia of folklore—that’s another reason why these “ready formed characters” are so charming to someone like Brian. He turns back to childhood and to old, traditional children’s stories simultaneously. Then he readjusts and reinvents them: making the Yule Lads and the Yule Cat new was an excavation as well as an invention. Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s 1932 poetry book ‘Jólin Koma’ established the thirteen canonical Yule Lads as we know them today, but they had lain untouched since then. Jóhannes’s book had tiny, black and white illustrations—lovely in their own right, but nothing close to the colour and liveliness of Brian’s pictures.
“There was a big element of having to create these people for the first time,” says Brian, and he made sure he perfected them. “I applied myself to doing loads and loads of drawings of cats to find one I was comfortable with. I reassessed him and gave him more colour, lightened him up and made him more of a tabby cat.”
Brain Pilkington projected these characters back into the public eye, turning the pencil sketches of ancient poems in the lively, colourful, characterful illustrations that Icelandic children know and love today.
Pick up Brian Pilkington’s Christmas books at the Grapevine store.
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