From Iceland — Words Of Interest: Elf Watch

Words Of Interest: Elf Watch

Published January 6, 2017

Words Of Interest: Elf Watch
Photo by
Eunsan Huh

In Icelandic Christmas tradition, there’s not one Santa Claus but thirteen mischievous, not always generous Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads. And Christmas in Iceland doesn’t just end with a food coma on December 25th, it goes on for thirteen more days. During this time, these Yule Lads return home to the mountains one by one.

The last to leave is Kertasníkir (literally “candle stealer”) on January 6th, and his departure marks the end of Christmas. This day is known as “Þrettándinn.” Though the literal translation is “the thirteenth,” it’s commonly called Twelfth Night. Like on Christmas, there are many festivities on Þrettándinn, from bonfires to fireworks—one last yuletide hurrah.

Þrettándinn is also a curious and mystical time. Iceland is rich with folklore featuring elves, literally called “hidden people” (huldufólk). According to the Elfschool of Reykjavík, these hidden people are descendants of Adam and Eve. Eve was ashamed of her unwashed children and hid them from God. Seeing through her lies, God made them invisible to men.

Humans can only see these hidden people with the elf’s permission, so huldufólk spottings are usually quite rare. However, on Þrettándinn, they are rumoured to come out of hiding and frolick in the open, dancing by the bonfires and celebrating the season. Folklore also tells of seals that turn into humans and cows that speak. So if you are in Iceland this time of year, keep a vigilant watch!


Every Single Word in Icelandic is a pictographic exploration of the Icelandic language. I find an interesting compound word, then deconstruct and illustrate it as icons. The goal is to express how Icelandic can be deadpan literal and unexpectedly poetic at the same time.

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