The Icelandic Jólasveinar (Yule Lads) have little to do with the international Santa Claus. They are descended from trolls, and were originally bogeymen who scared children. During this century they have mellowed, and sometimes don red suits. Their number varied in old times from one region of Iceland to another. The number thirteen was first seen in a poem about Grýla (the Lads’ mother) in the 18th century, and their names were published by Jón Árnason in his folklore collection in 1862.
On December 12, the Yule Lads begin to come to town one by one on each of the thirteen days before Christmas.
The first is Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod), who tries to drink the milk from the farmers’ ewes.
On December 13, Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) visits. Before the days of milking machines, he would sneak into the cowshed and skim the froth off the pails of milk.
Next to turn up is Stúfur (Stubby) on December 14. His name implies that he is on the small side. He is also known as Pönnuskefill (pan-scraper), as he scraped scraps of food off the pans.
On December 15, Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker) comes down from the mountains. He steals wooden spoons that have been used for stirring. When he visits the National Museum, he goes looking for wooden spoons.
On December 16, Pottasleikir (Pot-Licker) comes visiting. He tries to snatch unwashed pots, and licks the scraps from them.
Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker) arrives on December 17. He hides under beds and if someone puts his wooden food-bowl on the floor, he grabs it and licks it clean.
Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer) barges in on December 18. He is an awfully noisy fellow, who is always slamming doors and keeping people awake.
The Lad who is expected on December 19 is called Skyrgámur (Skyr Gobbler), because he loves skyr so much that he sneaks into the pantry and gobbles up all the skyr.
Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage Swiper) ascends on December 20. He loves sausages of all kinds, and steals them whenever he can.
On December 21, Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper) arrives. He is not as greedy as some of his brothers, but awfully nosy to the point of voyeurism, peeping through windows and even stealing toys he likes the looks of.
On December 22 Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer) comes calling. He has a big nose, and loves the smell of cakes being baked for Christmas. He often tries to snatch a cake or two for himself.
December 22 is sometimes called hlakkandi (“looking forward”), because the children have started looking forward to Christmas.
On December 23, St. Þorlákur’s Day, Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) descends. He adores all meat. In olden days he would lower a hook down the kitchen chimney and pull up a leg of lamb hanging from a rafter, or a bit of smoked lamb from a pan, as smoked lamb was traditionally cooked on St. Þorlákur’s Day.
Kertasníkir (Candle-Beggar) is the last to show up on Christmas Eve, December 24. In olden times, candlelight was the brightest light available. Candles were so rare and precious that it was a treat for children to be given a candle at Christmas. And poor Candle Beggar wanted one too.
During the thirteen days before Christmas, the National Museum presents actors dressed as the old-school Jólasveinar. They show up around 11 am each day.
Suðurgata 41, 101 Reykjavík.
Tel. 530 2200.
This article originally appeared in issue 16/2005.