Published December 22, 2017
Iceland has many weird and quirky Christmas creatures, traditions and folk lore. The best known of which are the Yule Lads that every year descend down from the mountains into our towns and villages bringing with them treats for the children, and pranks and robberies for everyone else. Every Icelander has a vivid image of what these men (or rather trolls) look like, but rather surprisingly it was an Englishman, who since his first work on the subject in the 1980s, has done more than anyone else to shape their now iconic look.
“Nobody was doing things about the Christmas men, and except for the Jóhannes úr Kötlum little brown book nothing else had come out in print–and that came out in 1932, and it just seemed like the right time to introduce them,” says illustrator and author Brian Pilkington.
Since the ‘80s the prolific artist and Iceland’s adopted son has released countless books about Icelandic Christmas that have been translated into numerous languages and his works are instantly recognisable to every man, woman and child in Iceland.
Life in Liverpool
Brian was born in 1950 in Liverpool, England, into a grey world of factories and industry. He struggled in school as he was dyslexic–something unknown to teachers in ‘50s England.
“Dyslexia is what made me, if you are dyslexic you gain certain qualities, and one of those is that you can make images in your head and think three dimensionally,” he says. “So it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
On account of his learning disability, however, he struggled through school and left it at 14 and got his first job. He got a job in a store where he was hired to do illustrations and it would seem that the universe had already at that point decided that he should work with Christmas, as he was told to make window decorations for the holidays. After a while at the job he discovered an ad in a local paper for an apprentice illustrator in a factory.
“It was very Dickensian,” he says of his factory job. “A massive old, dusty and noisy tin factory. With great big machines that clunked and clanked. It was great education.”
But Brian’s mind lay elsewhere so he applied for art school, but his lack of schooling meant that he had a hard time getting into collage in Liverpool. But he got into school in Leicester, where “there was so much drinking.” But in between the partying he finished a BA. But upon returning to Liverpool he found a struggling job market.
“There were no jobs, but my painting union got me a job at a paper in Southport and I did that for about a year. It was really boring work, I had studied in college and I figured I should be doing something more,” he says. “They were telling me to do a black and white drawing of a garden shed. They didn’t use photographs, so when they were trying to sell a pair of shoes, I had to do a little drawing of shoes.”
The drudgery at the paper meant that Brian sought change and In 1974 his life, by complete chance, took a rather dramatic turn.
A chance encounter with a country
“I went on a three week holiday and came to Iceland and had a great time,” Brian recounts. “At the end of the holiday I thought “there is nothing to turn back to”, I didn’t like my job, so I went to an advertising agency in Iceland and I brought some stuff with me just in case, and they immediately took my coat off and said you are starting now.”
After that there was no turning back and Brian has lived in Iceland ever since. Following a successful career in advertising he turned to publishing by the end of the ‘70s.
“Back then Icelandic children’s books didn’t really exist–except for those that were imported from abroad,” he says. “But they needed illustrations for “Ástarsaga úr fjöllunum” by Guðrún Helgadóttir, but it was a lot of work, so I took the chance to leave the agency and set up on my own.”
That was the beginning of a very prolific career and he has “lost count” of how many books he’s published. More and more the self described control freak is taking over all parts of his works, from illustration to layout and writing–something he has his mind set on doing more of.
The Christmas cat
His latest book is about what is probably the weirdest aspect of Icelandic Christmas folk lore–the rather horrifying Christmas cat, which every year comes into town and eats children who did not receive new clothes as presents.
“The cat has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, its first mention goes back to 16th century, but no Icelander had ever put it in print, so they have been waiting for me to do it,” he says. “I can create and imagine things and that is something I can do, and the wealth of Icelandic folk lore is wonderful–it’s bottom less.”
Through his work he has also managed to soften up the image of our trolls and other creatures. In the old stories they are far from friendly and a gigantic cat that eats children during the holidays is not a cuddly fun thing, but rather an evil most profound. But in his book the cat is rather silly and approachable, and Brian laughingly points out that the cat looks very much like himself.
The strange Christmas
Brian has a clear love for the weird quirkiness of Icelandic Christmas, and in the characters he has found a creative inspiration very different from that which can be gained from the more jovial Santa Claus.
“I just find it much more fascinating, it has more depth than Santa Claus, which is a bit one dimensional. While the Yule Lads they are slightly evil, still pinch little things and slam doors, there is a mischievousness, but on the other hand they also give stuff and it makes it interesting.”
Another character that also occupies his mind is the mother of the Yule Lads Grýla–who each Christmas collects all the naughty children into a great big sack and eats them.
“Grýla is possibly the most scary character in any story, because she’s a matriarch and mother figures are soft and caring, but she’s a masculine evil person. Just the name Grýla fills you with fear, the only character you can give that name to is a nasty old hag,“ he says.
Listening to Brian talk about Icelandic Christmas you get a real sense for his love and passion of the topic. His work is as iconic as it is beautiful and has thoroughly embedded itself into the country’s cultural heritage. It is this that makes him the modern Icelandic father Christmas.