In Iceland, there is no Santa Claus. Instead, there are thirteen “jólasveinar,” which can be translated to “Yule Lads.” They live in mountains and hike to town, one by one, for the thirteen days leading up to Christmas Eve. Their mother is Grýla, a troll known for eating babies and beating up her husband. In previous centuries, the Yule Lads were a bunch of scraggly, merry—sometimes thieving—pranksters that would get up to all sorts of shenanigans on their visits to civilization. In recent decades, the lads have mostly abandoned their mischievous ways—today’s youth mostly knows them as a group of friendly country bumpkins who like to dress like skinny Santa Claus impersonators. Indeed, Icelandic children put a shoe on their windowsill every night leading up to Christmas Eve, and receive little gifts from the Yule Lads.
It would seem that capitalism and globalisation have transformed the Yule Lads into yet another vehicle for consumerism. Something like that. In the old days, however, they were fearful, a bunch of villains who terrorised children and people in the countryside around Christmas.
Each one has a name that reveals their true and naughty nature, for example Candle-Stealer, Spoon-Licker, Door-Slammer and of course Window-Peeper. They typically travel with their ruthless Yule Cat, which delights in eating children who have not received new clothing for Christmas.
The idea that there are thirteen Yule Lads is a modern one. In fact, the clan used to be much bigger clan. To wit, around 80 names of Yule brothers and sisters can be found in folk tales and poems dating back centuries. These forgotten Christmas villains had sinister and strange names like Faldafeykir (“Skirt-Sweeper”), Bjálfinn sjálfur (“The Fool Himself”), Svartiljótur (“Ugly Black”) and Litlipungur (“Small-Testicles”).
Weird and quite disturbing stories about the Yule Lads of old can be found in old manuscripts and books. We translated one of these stories. It is quite strange.
“We are really passionate about our work. Everybody here feels very fortunate working with such a great ingredient, and it’s the most rewarding thing I have done in my life.”The Girl With The Cursing Habit
There once was a farmer who lived close to the sea. Out for a walk one day, he sees a sealskin boat land on the shore. The boat’s crew disembarks, and the farmer sees that they are Yule Lads, plump and fat. They carry their boat ashore to the mountain and secure it. Then they start exchanging words. The fattest of them brags, saying he expects a comfortable stay as usual.
The farmer thinks that it would be a good idea to trick him, and see if he will be as arrogant next year. He goes home, making no mention of this.
The farmer’s housemaid was very foul-mouthed and cursed a lot, and the farmer knew that the fat Yule Lad was nourished by her cursing. He spoke with the housemaid and promised to give her some green cloth to make a skirt, if she refrained from cursing through the Christmas fast. The maid said she would try to not curse.
As Christmas gets nearer, the maid has not sworn once, and the farmer made sure that no one else swore, either. However, one day close to Christmas, the maid goes into the outhouse and finds one of the cows so unruly that she has no control over it. She forgets her promise and yells: “Why is the damn cow acting this way?“ Immediately after uttering the curse word, she hears a faint but joyous laughter—and immediately regrets cursing.
On the thirteenth night of Christmas, the farmer goes out to the beach where the Yule Lads docked. He sees the lads gathering together, each in a different condition. Some are fat and happy, others gaunt and sad, and yet others somewhere in between—all depending on how their stay at the local farms went. The farmer’s lad is the gauntest and saddest of them all.
The other lads inquire of him why he is so gaunt. He answers that it is because the farmer and his household did not curse. The other Yule lads thought this a shame, and then they disappeared out to sea.
Source: Sigfús Sigfússon/Helga Einarsdóttir, ‘Íslenskar þjóðsögur og sazgnir, III bindi’. Translated by Lemúrinn.
Lemúrinn is an Icelandic web magazine (Icelandic for the native primate of Madagascar). A winner of the 2012 Web Awards, Lemúrinn.is covers all things strange and interesting. Go check it out at www.lemurinn.is