When it comes to the role of the red-clad, generous Santa Claus, Christmas in Iceland has been different from other places, for Santa is, to an extent, absent from the scene. In Iceland, Yule lads, trolls and other mountain dwelling creatures from folklores have been a part of Icelandic culture for ages. Together, they remind everyone through the holidays that the festive season has set in.
What is more, the behaviour of these Icelandic Christmas creatures has been changing over the years. The way they behave now is quite different from the way they did in previous years.
Written by Jaya, edited by Andrea Gylfadóttir.
The Yule Lads
The Yule lads are brothers, who reside in the highlands but descend to the town, one by one, during the month of December. Legend has it that there are 13 lads in total. The first lad is supposed to come to town on December 12 while the last one arrives on December 24. After Christmas, they leave in the same order as they came. Each of the lads spend 13 days with the residents and tourists in Iceland.
You can also expect the mother of the Yule lads – the ogress Grýla – to appear in Icelandic human settlements to hold the naughty children. She is a frightful character, which is believed to be partly a troll and partly an animal. She stuffs the kids into her bag and carries them to her mountain lair. She boils these children in her cauldron and makes a tasty meal of them. But she only captures kids who misbehave. Children who regret their behaviour and are ready to repent are released.
The Christmas Cat
Grýla also has a monstrous cat as a pet, who is also present there among the humans on Christmas. Anyone who isn’t wearing new clothes on the day may find themselves at the mercy of the dreadful cat.
Yule Lads and Christmas
These mischievous pranksters used to steal from the population or harass them. But the Yule lads have changed with time. They have softened up a lot. The lads now leave small gifts behind for well-behaved children, who in turn have left small gifts in shoes on window sills before going to sleep. The disobedient children, on the other hand, will find just a potato. They all have names related to their traits or favorite way to prank or tease people.
The Yule lads have sort of taken up the role of Santa Claus. The lads are popularly portrayed as wearing the late medieval style Icelandic clothing, although sometimes they will be shown wearing clothes conventionally worn by Santa Claus.
Here are the 13 canonical Yule lads in the order in which they arrive:
English translation: Sheep-cote clod
Having long and stiff legs, he steals milk by feeding farmers’ ewes.
What he likes: Christmas cookies and milk
Personality: Kind, clever, stubborn
Arrival: 12 December
Departure: 25 December
English translation: Gully gawk
He hides in gullies to steal milk from cowsheds later.
What he likes: Meat, sweets, milk
Personality: Clumsy, is fond of children and animals
Arrival: 13 December
Departure: 26 December
English translation: Stubby
Of a short stature, he plunders pots and pans and eats leftovers.
What he likes: Skyr, biscuits, cheese, meat
Personality: kind-hearted, generous, amiable personality
Arrival: 14 December
Departure: 27 December
English translation: Spoon licker
He likes to suck on wooden spoons. He is especially fond of spoons covered in cake mix or chocolate sauce.
What he likes: Vegetables, milk
Personality: kind, understanding
Arrival: 15 December
Departure: 28 December
English translation: Pot scraper
A lanky lad, he steals unwashed spoons and licks them squeaky clean.
What he likes: Cookies, sweets, milk
Personality: single-minded focus, witty
Arrival: 16 December
Departure: 29 December
English translation: Bowl licker
He is in the habit of licking the food remains of an askur, which is a bowl to keep the food warm.
What he likes: Cookies, skyr, milk
Personality: quiet demeanour, happy
Arrival: 17 December
Departure: 30 December
English translation: Door Slammer
He likes having fun by slamming doors, particularly when his mother isn’t around.
What he likes: milk, cheese
Personality: mischievous, silly
Arrival: 18 December
Departure: 31 December
English translation: Skyr Glutton
An old-fashioned guy, he doesn’t like things to change. He complains that skyr today is not as good as it was in the past.
What he likes: skyr, cheese, milk
Arrival: 19 December
Departure: 1 January
English translation: Sausage Swiper
Fond of delicious food, he hides in the rafters to pluck away sausages hung up for smoking.
What he likes: meat, cheese, cookies
Arrival: 20 December
Departure: 2 January
English translation: Window Peeper
He finds his own cave home boring, so when he comes to town, he loves the bright colours and patterns.
What he likes: pancakes, milk
Personality: art lover
Arrival: 21 December
Departure: 3 January
English translation: Door Sniffer
Possessing an abnormally large nose, he is able to locate scraps of food from afar. He is good at smelling bad stuff as well, so just make sure your home is devoid of any such smell.
What he likes: cookies, laufabrauð, sweets
Personality: cheerful, social
Arrival: 22 December
Departure: 4 January
English translation: Meat hook
This guy loves meat and is simply not willing to eat vegetables. He is ever ready to run away with meat of any kind.
What he likes: meat
Personality: strong, loud
Arrival: 23 December
Departure: 5 January
English translation: Candle Stealer
He likes to eat candles. There were times when candles were rendered from animal fat. He has no qualms about following children to steal their candles.
What he likes: meat, candles, cookies
Personality: mischievous, friendly
Arrival: 24 December
Departure: 6 January
How Yule lads have changed and where they haven’t
During the 20th century, the Yule lads’ persona also underwent a change. They got civilised gradually and started bringing gifts like Santa Claus was doing offshore. Now everyone, particularly children wait for the Yule lads enthusiastically. Kids don’t forget leaving their shoe in the window of their room.
What they haven’t changed is this dressing habit. They still like dressing themselves in conventional peasants’ garb, wool and sheepskins, and maintain their old names, which give us a sneak peek into their personality. Even if you aren’t an Icelandic, you would be able to learn the true nature of these lads just by their names. Each of them specialises in stealing certain items or annoying people and they continue to do so even to this day.