The Yule Lads

12 12 2012

The first Yule Lad comes December 12, TODAY!

Check out the tab to learn about all the Jólakötturinn of the day

Check out the tab at the top to learn about the Jólakötturinn of the day.

The Yule Lads of Iceland are a group of mischievous entities who plague households with their antics during the holiday season. They have a darker past, but in modern times they have transformed into troublesome but relatively benign beings. Children who leave out their shoes can expect to find a small present from the Yule Lad of the day, though bad kids who leave out their boots in hopes of getting goodies may just find an old potato in the toe.

The Icelandic Yule Lads bear little similarity to the world-famous Coca-Cola Santa Claus, who is descended from St. Nicholas, patron saint of children and sailors. In contrast, the Icelandic Yule Lads are descended from trolls and their original role was to strike fear in the hearts of children. As it happens, they are the sons of two of the most hideous ogres ever known in Iceland, Grýla and Leppalúði who live in the mountains with their cat named Jólakötturinn.

No doubt most children would have wanted to avoid the Icelandic Yule Lads in the old days, since they were used by parents to frighten their children into behaving. Every Christmas, Grýla and her sons come down from the mountains: Grýla in search of naughty children to boil in her cauldron and the boys in search of mischief. Evidently this was of some concern to Icelandic authorities, since in 1746 a public decree was issued to prohibit parents from frightening their children with monsters and fiends like the Yule Lads.

A bunch of the Yule Lads... Jólasveinarnir.

A bunch of the Yule Lads… Jólasveinarnir.

Whether it was due to this decree or something else, the Yule Lads became increasingly benign. Over time they ceased to be a threat to children’s lives, though they continued to be thieving scoundrels. Icelandic children place a shoe in their bedroom window each evening in the 13 days before Christmas to receive a small gift. In the 20th century, the Icelandic Yule Lads became strongly influenced by their foreign colleagues, both in terms of conduct and appearance. They began wearing red garments on special occasions, similar to Santa Claus and the Danish Christmas gnomes. They also developed an unprecedented kindness towards children, to the point where they started depositing gifts in their shoes.

Yet despite foreign influences, the Icelandic Yule Lads kept their traditional Icelandic characteristics, including their names, their residence in the mountains, and their number – thirteen. That said, there has been some discrepancy over the years as to how many Yule Lads there actually were, and also what their correct names were. Dozens of different names for the Yule Lads appear in different folk tales and stories. A popular poem about the Yule Lads by the late Jóhannes úr Kötlum, which first appeared in the book Jólin koma (Christmas is Coming) in 1932, served to make their names and number much better known. The names of the 13 Yule Lads that most Icelanders know today are all derived from that poem.

Presents are exchanged at 6pm on December 24th. They are not delivered by any of the Yuletide Lads but by friends and family. An old Icelandic folklore states that everyone has to get one new piece of clothing at Christmas. Anyone who does not is in danger of being eaten by Grýla’s pet – a malicious beast called the Jólakötturinn (Christmas Cat).

Jólakötturinn... The Christmas Cat

Jólakötturinn… The Christmas Cat. AHHHHHHHH Yes, I will be a good girl this year!

Information from the National Museum of Iceland




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