From Iceland — The Bewitching Hours Before Christmas

The Bewitching Hours Before Christmas

Published December 16, 2009

The Bewitching Hours Before Christmas

Just the other day, Ingimundur the electrician told me he has regular contact with a vegetable vendor who lived in 1732 during the bubonic plague in London. Þorvaldur the mechanic explained that he has lived over two hundred lives, including: a Dutchman for the East India Company and an Italian monk-scribe during the fourteenth century.
    For those of you who have been reading this column, you will note that there is no shortage of Icelanders who believe in reincarnation, afterlife, a universal collective consciousness, communicate with ghosts, fairies, elves, flora—even the enigmatic huldufólk (hidden people); and yet, few will stare you straight in the eye and admit it.  Those that do, quite often ask you for complete anonymity.  “Yes,” they say, “I’ve seen elves, but for heaven’s sake don’t tell a soul.  People are very judgemental, and I still have to lead a regular life.”
    Sigrún is four years old.  And I can tell you (she’s the daughter of Guðmundur, a friend), she believes in elves and fairies, she has an invisible pal who she plays with all the time; she also believes in the thirteen Yule Lads.  She would have no problem accepting that I was formerly a Mongolian warrior, a knight of the Great Ghengis Khan. I’m sure she would ask me if I could show her my yurt.
    Although we ‘sensible’ adults no longer believe in Santa Claus nor the Easter Bunny, we do everything in our power to maintain the myth for the sake our children.  Is it that we consider this important for nourishing their creative impulses, their imagination; or perhaps for honouring age old traditions? I propose that we actually want to believe ourselves. There’s nothing like winking at your wife while watching your five-year old unwrap his presents with utter abandon, is there?
    In Iceland, the Yule Lads (thirteen of them in place of the one Coca Cola Santa Claus), who range from the rambunctious sheep-harassing Stekkjastaur, to the candle gobbling Kertasníkir (in the old days candles were made from pork dripping and thus edible) arrive in succession from the 12th of December all the way up to Christmas eve.  Rather than rumbling down the chimney to place gifts under the Christmas tree, they scarper in and out of hedgerows, bound over hillocks, scramble up walls, all for a peek inside your child’s old boot.  Of course, it’s a great way to get the kids to get to bed early, finish their dinner, have their homework all in order:  if you’re good you’ll get a gift every night; if, on the other hand, you’re misbehaving, you’ll end up with a potato in your shoe.
    Recently, Guðmundur had a dilemma with Sigrún. Sigrún, like many Icelandic children, has been doing a good job of upping Icelandic milk sales: The milk company, MS, plasters the Yule Lads in all manner of hooliganism on the sides of their milk cartons in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  One fine morning, Sigrún looks up from her Cheerios, and says: “Dad, in Iceland we have 13 Santas.  But on TV there’s only one.  He drives a flying carriage led by a bunch of reindeer, and the elves help him make all the presents for Christmas.  Who are the real Christmas men?”
    Trying to get his folklore straight (and you gotta take your hat off to him), Guðmundur said: “Well, you know, ‘cause we live in Iceland, we’re much closer to the North Pole than American children.  So here in Iceland, the thirteen Yule Lads do the gift-giving on Santa’s behalf instead.”  And then, Guðmundur considered carefully what he was going to say next.  He realised he’d opened a whole can of worms.  How was he going to explain Grýla, the troll-mother of the Yule Lads and, heaven forbid, the Yule Cat (who is said to eat children if they don’t don a new piece of clothing at Christmas)?  Thankfully for him, Sigrún bought the whole caboodle and had to dash off for kindergarten shortly thereafter.  Apparently she hasn’t yet dug any further, but Guðmundur is inventing a complete new Saga in his head just in     case.
    In the words of the author Jonathan Black: “Time is nothing but a measure of the changing positions of objects in space, and, as many a scientist, mystic or mad man knows, in the beginning there were no objects in space.”  All we have to do is just fill in the blanks, and everything comes clearly into place.
    As to whether Santa and the thirteen Yule Lads are really related, you’d have to ask Þorvaldur.  He’s lead so many lives, he’s sure to have been one of them once.  That is, right after he was reincarnated as the Dalai Lama.

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