Iceland’s 13 Yule Lads - Don’t Call them Santas

Magazine Iceland’s 13 Yule Lads - Don’t Call them Santas

Icelanders love Christmas.  But here’s the thing, Iceland was settled in 874 AD! So, with well over a 1000 years in its past, Iceland’s particular take on Christmas is a little complicated. Sure, Santa is part of their Christmas, as it is for millions and millions of others – but this is a relatively recent addition. Prior to the “arrival” of Santa, Icelanders had their Yule lads.  Read on and you’ll most likely come to the conclusion that these 13 troll-like fellas are downright creepy and scary.  And, you’d be right!  For centuries they were used to scare children into listening to their parents and working hard all year. Nowadays however, these Yule Lads are more like an extension of Santa; a reward system in a way. Thirteen days before Christmas Eve children put a shoe on their windowsills and in turn, if they are kind, respectful, and well behaved each day, they will get a toy or a treat in their shoe. However, if they are not - so the story goes - the Yule Lads will place a potato in their shoe as punishment for misbehaving.  In truth, it is doubtful that many modern Icelandic parents are putting any potatoes in their children’s shoes.  Much like the notion of getting coal in one’s stocking in North America, the old punitive notions have gone by the wayside.

It wasn’t until approximately the beginning of the 20th century that the modern version of Santa Claus appeared on the scene and Icelanders heard stories of other Scandinavian Yule Lads that were actually kind to children. From this point, Iceland’s Yule lads started to evolve into their current benevolent form.  It should be noted that because the mythology of Iceland’s Yule lads is so old, it is actually a little hard to know the exact details of their creation and the details of each lad.  Researching for this post, we found inconsistencies in the accounts of the lads as well as other aspects of Iceland’s current Christmas traditions.  But the basic plot is as follows:

The names for the Yule lads are rather simple and act as either a description of the lad or of their tendencies and each night is designated for a specific lad. On the first night, or December 12, comes Stekkjarstaur, also known as “Gimpy.” He is known for harassing local sheep to suckle some milk but his stiff peg legs impair him during his mischief. On the second night, or December 13, comes Giljagaur, or Gully Gawk, who hides in gullies awaiting the opportunity to sneak into cowsheds and steal milk. On the 14th comes Stúfur, or Stubby, who is known for his short size and tendency to steal pans and eat any leftovers. On the 15th comes Þvörusleikir, or Spoon-Licker who is known for being extremely thin and stealing wooden spoons to lick any remaining food left on them. Next comes Pottaskefill, or Pot-Scraper, who steals left-overs from pots. Then there's Askasleikir, or Bowl-Licker, who hides under beds until someone puts down their bowl so he can steal it and maybe some leftovers. On the 18th comes Hurðaskellir, or Door-Slammer, who enjoys slamming doors, especially at night when people are sleeping to frighten them. The 19th brings Skyrgámur who has a burning love for skyr, an Icelandic food similar to yogurt, and is known to steal it from people's homes. On the 20th day comes Bjúgnakrækir, or Sausage-Swiper, who likes to hide in the rafters and steal sausages that are being smoked. Next comes Gluggagægir, or Window-Peeper, who is known to look into windows in search of things to steal. Next up is Gáttaþefur, or Doorway-Sniffer, who is said to have an abnormally large nose which he uses to sniff out laufabrauð, a thin, decorative, Icelandic, holiday bread. December 23rd brings Ketkrókur, or Meat-Hook, who uses a hook to steal meat. Lastly comes Kertasníkir, or Candle-Stealer, who follows children to steal their candles. Each of these Yule lads continues their mischief for a total of 13 days before retreating back into their cave in the mountains somewhere.

During each of these days, and throughout the year, Grýla and Leppalúði are present, who are the parents of the Yule Lads and act as punishment for the kids who are extremely naughty. They are scary, ugly, and mean, and anyone would be terribly unlucky to come across either of them. Although Leppalúði isn’t known to do much, Grýla is known to sneak into the homes of naughty children, shove them in a sack and eat them in a stew back in her lair.  Yikes!  Ask any Icelander about her and they will tell you that their parents told them the story of Grýla and they were truly scared of her growing up.

Each of these characters were known for their scary appearances and their traditional Icelandic clothes, however they are more recently seen as the American version of Santa Claus and aren’t really used to frighten children anymore.  All of this could lead one to think that the evolving tale of the Yule lads is a good metaphor for Iceland’s history.  Iceland was not the easiest land to settle and for many hundreds of years, the hardy people of Iceland barely eked out a living on this frosty island.  There was little room for sentiment and characters such as the Yule lads were commensurately harsh and frightening; they served a purpose and helped Icelanders survive in a land that was, let’s face it, unforgiving. But now, Iceland, while still a frosty island, is a land of relative plenty and so the Yule lads have gone from malevolent to benevolent. 

If you are planning to spend your holiday in Iceland, we hope you'll keep us in mind for your Iceland hotel needs!  And, for those who stay at Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura, the Yule lads will be handing out goodies to all guests and fun facts about Iceland's Christmas traditions.

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