Published December 23, 2015
You’ve heard this, but it bears repeating: Christmas in Iceland is a little different. Instead of one Santa, Iceland has thirteen. These thirteen jólasveinar—Yule Lads, as they’re referred to in English—each have their own little character quirk, which usually involves something menacing. Starting on December 12, the Yule Lads come down from their mountain, one each day until Christmas.
“What’s different is that in other countries you have only one Santa,” says Terry Gunnell, Professor of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland. “But here you have a bunch, coming down from the mountains one-by-one as Christmas approaches. They have different sorts of names that suggest they don’t give, but rather take. They lick out bowls. They steal sausages. They bang doors and peep through windows—things of this kind. They were first recorded in the 19th century, but you find similar stories in Norway as well, with The Christmas Lads. At first, the Yule Lads were called different sorts of names and were from different parts of Iceland, but many of the same names came up again and again.”
So who are these mischievous Yule Lads? Here’s a rundown.
1. Stiffy legs—he tries to suckle yews in farmer’s sheep sheds
2. Gully Gawk—he steals foam from buckets of milk
3. Stubby—he’s short and steals food from the frying pan
4. Spoon Licker—that’s right, you got it—he licks spoons
5. Pot Licker—he steals unwashed pots and licks them clean
6. Bowl Licker—he steals bowls of food
7. Door Slammer—he keeps everyone awake slamming doors left ajar
8. Skyr Gobbler—he eats up all the Skyr
9. Sausage Swiper—he makes his escape with strings of unattended sausages
10. Window Peeper—he likes to creep around outside and peek into uncovered windows
11. Door Sniffer—he has a huge nose, and sniffs out baked goods to make off with
12. Meat Hook—he steals meat, using his hook
13. Candle Beggar—he steals candles, which used to be sought-after items in Iceland
Why Yule Lads? What could have inspired these stories?
Says Terry: “The Yule Lads might be associated with people dressing up in masks and going around farms before and after Christmas,” says Terry. “It’s a tradition you find all over Scandinavia. People used to dress up in a sort of goat costume. It may well be that the Yule Lads were at one time just a bunch of young men who would visit nearby farms in costumes and masks—pretending they were supernatural spirits that had come down from the mountain.”
“As darkness approaches and the snow comes down, people move more and more into the core family within the house,” he continues. “In Norway, after the spirits take over the mountain dairies in October, people would stay closer and closer until Christmas, when no one would dare step outside because of all the spirits out there. It’s all really about nature spirits taking back their land.”
The Yule Lads have a mother, right?
The Yule Lads do in fact have a mother—Grýla, the ogress. She collects bad children in her sack and eats them like sushi. She’s big and mean—sometimes portrayed bearing hooves and horns. Not your typical Christmas character.
“In general, the Yule Lads weren’t associated with the figure of Grýla,” says Terry, “who is much, much older. She dates back to the 13th century or thereabouts. Grýla is mentioned in various texts as being a troll, an ogress woman who roamed around the countryside. She wasn’t initially associated with Christmas, either. No one knew when exactly she was going to come. The name, in my mind, is associated with a word from the Danish dialect that means “growler,” which is quite a common name for trolls or giants. Their names come from the sounds you hear on the landscape from animals. We find more and more songs about Grýla as we get nearer to the 17th century, and she becomes quite a common figure in Christmas songs.”
Leppalúði isn’t talked about much. He’s Grýla’s third husband, and a sort of father figure to the Yule Lads. “There are accounts of Grýla eating her first husband,” says Terry. “She was the first feminist out there. She adopted all these bearded weirdies—the Yule Lads—at a later point, up on Mt. Esja.”
The modern-day Yule Lads are considerably less menacing. Now, they leave little presents in the shoes of good children. The Yule Lads have become a lot less like nature spirits, and are more like thirteen wacky Santa Clauses.
“The Yule Lads only started giving gifts in the 20th century,” explains Terry. “The idea of presents in shoes was probably picked up from Holland. The Yule Lads became nicer, but Grýla stayed mean. You can see this up at the National Museum. Around midday during the Christmas season, you can meet each of the Yule Lads, who show up dressed in 18th century Icelandic attire, as an attempt to culturally reclaim the Yule Lads from the Coca-Cola Santa Claus figure.”
Why are there thirteen days of Christmas in Iceland? That’s a lot more than the standard Christmas Day we know from other countries.
“What caused the thirteen days of Christmas, possibly,” muses Terry, “was the changing calendar between the 1500s and the 1700s, all over Europe. The Julian Calendar had fallen out of step, which meant that mid-winter was taking place on December13. To bring it back to where it should be—December 21—they took thirteen or fourteen days off the calendar. People were, of course, uncomfortable with the change. They had been celebrating midwinter on December 13, and it suddenly became December 21. So they decide to go on celebrating December 13, celebrating all of the days between the old and new Christmases.”
Accompanying image: Grýla, by Þrándur Þórarinsson. Read our feature interview with Þrándur from last year! It’s great! He’s great!