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Christmas in Iceland with the Yule Lads

By: Catherine
Last Updated: 14/12/2022

Icelanders go big at Christmas! So big in fact, that they begin their festive celebrations on 12 December. What’s more, Icelandic children don't just get presents from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

On the 13 nights leading up to Christmas, Icelandic homes are visited by the 13 Yule Lads ("Jólasveinar") – creatures from festive Nordic folklore. Starting on 12 December, they descend one by one from the mountains.

According to legend, the Yule Lads are the sons of a troll named Grýla. If you can’t quite picture them, imagine gangly Christmas elves with a mystical Nordic twist.

The Yule Lad’s troll heritage hints at their more sinister origins. But nowadays, they are cast as benevolent gift-givers with just a side of troublemaking.

Read on to discover more about these eccentric Christmas characters. You’ll find out their odd names and the strange antics they get up to.



Yule Lads, dressed like Santa Claus at Christmas in Iceland

What mischief do the Yule Lads get up to?

The Yule Lad’s level of mischievousness has changed over the centuries – they weren't always kindly gift-givers. Indeed, you’ll find that today’s softened version of the original folklore came with the popularisation of Santa Claus in Iceland.

What each of the Yule Lads is known for has changed over the years too. Now the most widely accepted version of the tale comes from the 1932 poem Jólasveinavísur (“Yule Lads”), written by Jóhannes frá Kötlum.

Here’s a list of the 13 Icelandic Yule Lad’s names, in the order they’re said to come down from the mountains:

  1. Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod) on 12 December – He sneaks into barns to steal milk from sheep.
  2. Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) on 13 December – This Yule Lad has a taste for cow’s milk and he’ll take it straight from the barn.
  3. Stúfur (Stubby) on 14 December – The shortest of the lads, he swipes leftover food from frying pans.
  4. Þvörusleikir (Spoon Licker) on 15 December – He licks spoons, of course.
  5. Pottasleikir (Pot Licker) on 16 December – This guy will steal unwashed pots from the kitchen so he can lick them clean.
  6. Askasleikir (Bowl Licker) on 17 December – He snatches bowls out from under beds and gobbles up any morsels of food.
  7. Hurðaskellir (Door Slammer) on 18 December – He slams doors, and he’ll do this all night if he finds any open.
  8. Skyrgámur (Skyr Gobbler) on 19 December – He’s ravenous for skyr, Icelandic yoghurt, and will pinch any that's up for grabs.
  9. Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage Swiper) on 20 December – Hide your sausages or this guy will eat them.
  10. Gluggagægir (Window Peeper) on 21 December – He’ll peep through windows in the hope he can steal something.
  11. Gáttaþefur (Door Sniffer) on 22 December – You’ll find this large-nosed lad sniffing doorways in pursuit of baked goods.
  12. Ketrókur (Meat Hook) on 23 December – He’s hungry for meat, so lock up your lamb chops!
  13. Kertasníkir (Candle Beggar) on 24 December – Finally, the last of the Yule Lads is known for making off with candles.

Want to find out more about the explanations behind each of the Yule Lad's names? You could check out an English translation of the Jólasveinavísur poem.



Do the Yule Lads give gifts?

Well-behaved kids will get a small gift from each of the Yule Lads. Meanwhile, naughty children will get a potato, which is usually either raw or rotten. Perhaps this depends on how naughty they’ve been?

To give the Yule Lads somewhere to leave them a present, it’s tradition for Icelandic children to place a shoe on one of their windowsills. So if you visit Iceland in the run-up to Christmas, this should explain the sight of any shoes in the windows.

But it’s not all about the kids. In return for their efforts, these Yuletide Lads can expect to get a little treat for themselves.

Laufabrauð ("leaf bread"), a thin, crispy flatbread made at Christmastime, is a popular choice. You could try these intricately decorated baked goods for yourself on a winter trip to Iceland.



Jólakötturinn, downtown Reykjavik at Christmas ©nordicvisitor

Are there any other Icelandic Yule creatures?

While you might think the Yule Lads themselves don’t sound particularly intimidating, their mother – a menacing troll called Grýla – is a different story.

According to Icelandic Yule legends, on the run-up to Christmas, Grýla roams around the country collecting naughty children in a large sack. She then takes them back to her cave to be made into stew. Yikes!

As if that's not enough for young Icelanders, Grýla also has a large black cat that you’ll want to keep a lookout for. Known as “Jólakötturinn” (meaning the Christmas Cat or Yule Cat), it’s rumoured to devour anybody who doesn’t get new clothes for Christmas.

Thankfully, even something as small as a scarf or pair of socks will keep this greedy feline at bay. This might explain why you’ll find Icelanders impeccably well-dressed and ready for any weather.



Borgarfjörður in the snow, Iceland

Where can you find the Iceland Yule Lads & other Christmas creatures?

At Christmastime, you’ll come across the Yule Lads at festive markets in Reykjavík. There’s even an annual hunt around the city to find all of the Icelandic Christmas characters.

If you’d like to discover the home of Grýla and see where the Yule Lads come from, then you’ll want to head north. Venture to the lava labyrinth of Dimmuborgir in North Iceland and you’ll be able to explore their otherworldly hideout.

Or why not visit Fossatún Troll Garden in Borgarfjörður, where you can sit in Grýla's big iron stew pot? There’s even a "troll hike" you can do nearby!

If you’d like to visit Santa Claus during your time in Iceland, you might catch a glimpse of him in the capital. But his favourite place to hang out in Iceland is the Christmas Garden near the town of Akureyri.



Family watching the northern lights in Iceland

Experience Iceland at Christmastime

Head to Iceland in December and you can soak up the country’s festive folklore. Not only that but you’ll get to explore charming Christmas markets and see the capital decked out with twinkling lights.

That’s not all that awaits you on a winter trip to Iceland though. You could be treated to another magical sight – the northern lights. Here, the long winter nights are perfect for chasing the aurora on an Iceland northern lights package.

No matter whether you’re hunting for mythical creatures or jaw-dropping natural wonders, get in touch with our Reykjavík-based travel experts. They’ll give you personal trip recommendations and use local insight to plan an enchanting getaway to Iceland for you. 

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Post by: Catherine

Born and raised in Scotland, Catherine has a background in trip organisation and design. When not travelling, or writing about travels, you can find her rock climbing and exploring remote corners of Scotland. Her top travel experiences include cycling along India’s Brahmaputra River, wandering the souks of Marrakech, and mountaineering in the Alps.

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Getting there

We'd love to give you the same amazing travel experiences as you read about in our blog! To visit the destinations and attractions mentioned in this post - and to discover a few new highlights along the way - check out these recommended Nordic Visitor tours.