Christmas folklore in Iceland, like its food, language and landscapes, is a bit more extreme than in neighbouring Nordic countries. While Scandinavia has its fill of unique Yuletide traditions (for example, the "Sauna Elf" in Finland) Iceland takes the prize for having the most hair-raising Christmas creatures.
Instead of just getting a visit from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, Iceland has the 13 Yule Lads (Jólasveinar) who descend from the mountains to wreak mischief in the nights leading up to Jólin (Christmas).
What's the deal with these strange fellows?
Starting on the 12th of December, the Yule Lads come one by one in the nighttime to Icelandic homes, where they leave a little gift in well-behaved children's shoes placed on the windowsills. Naughty kids get a potato! In return, children might leave them some little gifts or snacks, like laufabrauð ("leaf bread"), a thin, crispy flatbread made specially at Christmastime.
But these troll-beings weren't always benevolent gift givers; that came only with the popularisation of Santa Claus. Originally the Yule Lads were troublemakers and that's how they got their peculiar names, as you can read about below with excerpts of the poem "Jólasveinavísur" by Jóhannes frá Kötlum. Each Yule Lad is listed in order of the night he visits:
1. Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod) — 12th December
The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood
to pray upon the farmer's sheep
as far as he could.
2. Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) — 13th December
The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
3. Stúfur (Stubby) — 14th December
Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
4. Þvörusleikir (Spoon Licker) — 15th December
The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn't in.
5. Pottasleikir (Pot Licker) — 16th December
Pot Licker, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he´d come to the door and tap.
6. Askasleikir (Bowl Licker) — 17th December
Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
7. Hurðaskellir (Door Slammer) — 18th December
The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap.
8. Skyrgámur (Skyr Gobbler) — 19th December
Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
9. Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage Swiper) — 20th December
The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
10. Gluggagægir (Window Peeper) — 21st December
The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
11. Gáttaþefur (Door Sniffer) — 22nd December
Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
12. Ketrókur (Meat Hook) — 23rd December
Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak's Day.*
*Icelanders traditionally eat skata (fermented skate fish) on this evening, leaving meat vulnerable to theft by Meat Hook.
13. Kertasníkir (Candle Beggar) — 24th December
The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
- 'twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
Other Icelandic Yule creatures
The Yule Lads are the offspring of of lazy Leppalúði and evil Grýla, the ogress who collects misbehaved children in her large sack and takes them back to her cave to boil and eat them. As the legend goes, bloodthirsty Grýla never goes hungry at Christmastime. Yikes!
As if that's not traumatising enough for a youngster, there's also the scary Christmas Cat (Jólakötturinn) to worry about. This big black cat, the housepet of Grýla, is rumoured to devour anybody who does not receive a new item of clothing — even something as small as a scarf or socks — for Christmas. This could explain why Icelanders are always impeccably well-dressed and ready for any weather.
Where to find the Yule Lads & other trolls
Maybe you're not fond of the idea of someone sniffing your door or peeping through your windows. But if you wish to meet Iceland's notorious Yule Lads or other mythical creatures, we know where you can find them.
The reputed home of Grýla, the Christmas Cat and the Yule Lads is the lava-labyrinth of Dimmuborgir in North Iceland. The Yule Lads can also be spotted around Reykjavik in December, when there's a little game to find them all. Or sit in Grýla's big iron pot at the Troll Garden at Fossatún in Borgarfjörður, where you can do the "troll hike"! Would you rather meet regular old Santa? Visit him at the Christmas Garden outside Akureyri.
Nordic Visitor offers Christmas getaways with a special local touch, but you can experience Iceland's mythical troll hideaways any time of year on one of Nordic Visitor's popular self-drive tours in Iceland.
Have something particular in mind? Get in touch with the friendly travel experts at Nordic Visitor for your own tailor-made itinerary.
Editor's note: the cover photo is from our friends at NorthIceland.is — the official tourism centre for the Yule Lads' home region.