The Icelandic Yule Lads (The Icelandic Santa Clauses)
The Icelandic Yule Lads (The Icelandic Santa Clauses)
The Icelandic Yule Lads – Not the quirkiest thing about Christmas in Iceland?
Did you know that there is not one Santa Claus in Iceland but 13? That’s right, 13 Yule Lads (or Santa Clauses), descendants of trolls, come down from the mountains one by one during Advent. They’re quite the characters but if you treat them right and cater to their quirks, they leave little treats behind while children sleep in their beds.
Each Yule Lad has his special day of arrival and like any self-respecting airline we love good on-time performance.
But since the salami-eating, candle-thieving, door-slamming Yule Lads are actually the least weird of the Icelandic Christmas traditions, we’ll also address some of their even quirkier family members. Starting with their troll parents and pet cat. Please fasten your seatbelts, cause you’re in for a ride…
The Yule Lads’ parents, Grýla and Leppalúði, are both very scary ogres, but this family is a real matriarchy where the mother Grýla calls all the shots while Leppalúði the father doesn’t really go out much. The terrible Grýla hunts down children who misbehave and cooks them for dinner in a large pot. While kids today get a more child-friendly version, 80s kids knew all about Grýla and her child-eating ways and her lifestyle would provoke questions about social politics, human rights and poverty lines and deeply influence terminology and discourse about feminism and patriarchy. Grýla became a synonym for scary older women and Leppalúði was used to refer to suppressed men of little standing. Their roles in the old society were quite clear, as nobody wanted to be likened to Grýla or Leppalúði. Just to be clear, a Yule Lad would never, ever eat a child. They might sniff, but they’d never bite.
Like all trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði turn to stone when faced with the sun and lava fields in Iceland are a testament to the fate of many of their kin. Many of the most popular Christmas songs in Iceland are about Grýla and her sidekick husband Leppalúði and they remain a huge part of Christmas in Iceland, albeit the darker part.
The Christmas Cat
If you think Grýla and Leppalúði are scary, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Christmas Cat, the troll family’s pet, is no ordinary cat and most definitely a force to be reckoned with. Unlike most cats in Iceland, who are famous for their laid-back and friendly manners outdoors, this one is a bit scary. Actually, he’s extremely scary. He’s huge, and pretty much just hunts down and eats children. Traditionally, the Christmas Cat stalks the snowy countryside and gobbles up anyone not properly dressed for the holidays and/or cold weather.
To fend off this advent monster, families in the olden days made sure nobody would “wind up in the Christmas Cat” and gifted each other warm clothes. Farmers told their workers to work hard processing the autumn wool and children were warned not to venture outside without proper attire. Like most folklores, this one had a purpose. The Christmas Cat is alive and well in the form of a popular sculpture in Lækjartorg square in downtown Reykjavik. And it’s as festive as it is scary.
Sheep-Cote Clod – December 12
December 11 is a huge day for the children in Iceland. Before they go to bed, they’ll place a single shoe on their windowsill and have a hard time falling asleep because Stekkjastaur or Sheep-Cote Clod, the first of the Yule Lads, will arrive that night with a little treat to leave in said shoe. That is if they have been on their best behavior. If they haven’t, they risk getting a potato and nobody wants to wake up to a potato in their shoe. Icelandic parents are usually extra stressed out on December 11 and can be seen rushing to a nearby gas station late at night but their role in this whole thing is something of a mystery. The shoe will then be left in the windowsill until the last Yule Lad has come and gone on December 24. Sheep-Cote Clod is a big favorite since he’s the first of 13 Yule Lads to arrive in town from the mountains. He has extra-long and stiff legs but enjoys drinking milk straight from the ewe’s teat. His hobby doesn’t align well with his physique but to each his own.
Gully Gawk – December 13
Next to arrive is Giljagaur or Gully Gawk. He used to sneak into the cowshed and slurp the foam off the milk buckets and he’d get away with it back in the day, but Icelandic dairy farms are super high-tech nowadays and generally don't have any buckets. If he’s lucky, children leave him a glass of foamy milk or cream before bedtime in hopes of scoring some points in the form of treats.
Stubby – December 14
Stúfur or Stubby is abnormally short and unusually adorable compared to his brothers. His short legs mean it’s a bit of a challenge to hike all the way to town from the mountains. He craves leftovers from unwashed pots, so be kind and skip the dishwashing for the night. Stubby will be most grateful. Stubby, along with his brother Door-Slammer, is a big role-playing favorite for kids dressing up as the Yule Lads. While Stubby is cute and friendly, his brother has other desirable characteristics, but we’ll get to that.
Spoon-Licker – December 15
It’s hard for Þvörusleikir or Spoon-Licker to get full while only preferring the tiny leftovers from spoons after a family meal, which might explain why he’s so very thin. In an effort to fatten him up he might be left a hardier bite than his brothers. Perhaps a bit of butter in a spoon even.
Also, according to Icelandic Yule Lads health authorities, they are completely immune to COVID-19 so they’re free to lick all our cutlery. Facts!
Pot-Licker – December 16
The fifth Yule Lad to arrive is Pottasleikir or Pot-Licker. His name pretty much says it all. As soon as he comes down from the mountains he heads to a house and into the kitchen he goes. Let’s just say that you’ll awake with sparkling clean pots and pans the next morning.
Bowl-Licker – December 17
Meet Askasleikir or Bowl-Licker. In the olden days in Icelandic turf farmhouses, families used to sit and eat on the edge of their beds. Each family member had their own “askur” or bowl that had a lid to keep the food warm. Bowl-Licker used to hide under their beds and as soon as someone put their bowl down on the floor, he would swipe it away and lick it clean.
If you’re seeing a pattern emerge here, you’re not mistaken. Many of these Yule Lads are big fans of licking cutlery and stealing leftovers. But we’re not here to judge.
Door-Slammer – December 18
Hurðaskellir or Door-Slammer is probably the most controversial Yule Lad, since he scares some children, but is a huge favorite with others. As his name suggests, he slams doors, as loud and as often as he can and preferably at night. Whenever the Yule Lads arrive as a group at Christmas events or dances, Door-Slammer owns the entrance and will probably continue to be very loud for the remainder of the event.
For the quiet and introvert child at a Christmas party, Door-Slammer is a nightmare. But for the more extroverted and loud youngsters, he’s a dream come true.
Skyr-Gobbler – December 19
When Skyrgámur or Skyr-Gobbler arrives in town, he craves only one thing, the world-famous Icelandic dairy product skyr. Many have gotten to know skyr over the last few years, but Skyr-Gobbler was probably one of the first true skyr-fans. If you’re not familiar with skyr, it’s a deliciously creamy dairy product, high in protein and low in carbs that has the most wonderful filling effect, a kind of “Lembas bread” for Icelanders.
Sausage-Swiper – December 20
Bjúgnakrækir or Sausage-Swiper is obsessed with sausages. The first thing he would do when arriving from the mountains would be to go to kitchen, climb up to the rafters and taste the sausages that were being smoked. Seeing that Iceland is in fact famous for the smoked sausages and renowned hot dogs, Sausage-Swiper might actually have the best delicatessen palate of all his brothers.
Window-Peeper – December 21
Gluggagægir or Window-Peeper is the 10th Yule Lad to arrive in town. His obsession is as disturbing as his name suggests. He would go from window to window in town and observe people. He was not afraid of getting caught and if he was, he’d simply frown, making the ugliest face he could.
While we can’t really endorse this behavior, it did serve a purpose at some point when children could rest assured that whatever scary shape they imagined outside their dark windows was just Window-Peeper, on his way to leave them treats. Yup, that’s our story and we’re sticking to it.
Doorway-Sniffer – December 22
Finally, a Yule Lad with a craving still very much relevant in modern-day Iceland: Laufabrauð or fried bread! Doorway-Sniffer would hide behind doors and use his big and highly sensitive nose to find any baked goods, preferably the wonderful laufabrauð. Laufabrauð is a much-loved treat in Iceland, only eaten around the Christmas holidays and in many families justifies a full day of gathering for its preparation. The dough is carefully carved out with patterns and images before being deep-fried in bulks to last throughout the holiday season. It is then eaten for every meal, for days on end with an obscene amount of butter and no shame.
Meat-Hook - December 23
Ketkrókur or Meat-Hook craves meat and loves smoked lamb. He arrives from the mountains at the perfect time since Icelandic Christmas meals were cooked on the day before Christmas, or St. Thorlák’s Day in Iceland. Meat-Hook had a long stick he used to lower himself from the chimney and snag a smoked leg of lamb from the rafters.
Candle Stealer – December 24
The last to arrive is Kertasníkir or Candle Stealer. He used to follow children around and steal their candles, which back in the day were made of tallow and were therefore edible. Nowadays, Candle-Stealer has learned to behave himself and only accepts candles that children leave for him as appreciation for their last gift from the Yule Lads that year. Candle Stealer is a big favorite because he traditionally gives gifts that are a little more precious than his brothers and he arrives on Christmas Eve Day, the most anticipated day of the year in Iceland. And his obsession is quite fitting since Christmas is essentially a festival of lights and this day marks the turning point of the darkest day of year to the ever longer daylight after the winter solstice around December 20-23 every year. All Yule Lads are welcome but probably none quite as much as Candle Stealer.
And there you have it, the incredibly odd but completely unmissable tradition of the Yule Lads lives on in modern-day Iceland, despite it referencing mostly a long-lost time of natural hazards and poverty. Icelandic children continue to respect what their Yule Lads represent, the natural elements and forces beyond our control. Dress well, put your dish in the dishwasher and tidy your room in case you get visitors and who knows what treats might appear in your shoe the very next day.
PLAY and the entire Yule Lads family would like to thank illustrator Brian Pilkington© for his wonderful illustrations.