For Icelandic children, the twelfth of December holds special significance as it marks the first visit of the thirteen Yule Lads. One by one they make their visit, with the final one making his appearance on Christmas Eve.
Formerly known as sinister tricksters who made their way from monstrous homes to plague children by slamming doors, stealing food and candles, and peeking through windows, they have grown nicer and more gift-oriented over the years.
As a nation unaccustomed to chimneys and unwilling to hang up perfectly good apparel, Icelanders instead leave shoes in their bedroom windows for the Yule Lads. Those deemed nice are rewarded with a small treat, but those judged naughty get a raw potato. Yes, that’s right, a potato. Not coal, but a nutritious and perfectly edible potato.
At the munchkin age of five, I sought to test exactly how judgmental the Yule Lads were. I didn’t listen to what my mother asked me to do, refused to go to bed on time, and was by all accounts a misbehaving brat. To my mother’s surprise, the following morning I wasn’t upset at finding a potato in my shoe, but asked her joyfully if I could cook and eat it for breakfast.