Loading...
Menu

Christmas in Iceland with the Yule Lads

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).

Yule Lads at Iceland National Museum
Each December, the Yule Lads come to visit children at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. (Photo: Mbl.is/IcelandMonitor.is)

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.

Ketkrókur the Yule Lad
At least vegetarians don't have to worry about a visit from Meat Hook. (Photo: Þorgeir Gunnarsson/Jólasveinarnir.net)

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.

Dimmuborgir and Troll Garden
Left: Dimmuborgir (Dark Cities) near Lake Mývatn, home to many myths. Right: Nordic Visitor's Klara prepares to be Grýla's next meal at Fossatún.

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.

Tags:
Post by: Jessica

When not writing about Northern European tourist attractions, Jessica Bowe is busy daydreaming about her next trip or scouring Instagram for travel inspiration. Originally from Wisconsin (USA), she's lived in Iceland since 2008 and has since become fully immersed in Eurovision mania and Scandinavian coffee culture.

More posts by Jessica

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.

Sign up for our newsletter