‘Tis the season to be jolly – and to look into intriguing Christmas traditions around the world! This year we are heading north to unveil some Icelandic Christmas Folklore. Gather around for the story of the gruesome Gryla and her mischievous 13 Yule Lads.
Gryla is first mentioned in the Prose Edda 1. She is depicted as a hideous troll who roams around towns looking for disobedient children, and takes them home in her giant sack to prepare her favorite meal: naughty children stew.
This monstruos lady lives in a cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields 2 with her third husband Leppaludi and her thirteen children – the Yule lads.
And who are the 13 Yule Lads? They are also mountain-dwelling creatures whose mission is scaring children into good behavior. But their unconventional methods were so out of line that the King of Denmark 3 forbade parents from using the Yule Lads stories as disciplinary tool.
This decree didn’t stop parents from telling stories about the Yule Lads, but it turned the terrifying creatures into tamed, well-intended pranksters who left gifts in the children’s shoes throughout the Christmas season.
The poem Jólasveinarnir (The Yule Lads) established the personalities of the thirteen fellows, each of them was given an oddly specific name that captured the nature of their pranks. Let’s take a look!
Stekkjarstaur (Sheep-Cote Clod) harasses sheep for their milk, but is impaired by his stiff wooden legs.
Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) hides in gullies and sneaks into the sheds to steal milk.
Stúfur (Stubby) steals pans and eats the crust off them. He’s really short.
Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker) licks wooden spoons and is extremely thin due to malnutrition.
Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper) feeds on leftovers from pots.
Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker) waits under the bed for someone to put down their “askur” 4, which he then steals.
Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer) loves slamming doors at night and waking people up.
Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler) has a fondness for for skyr 5.
Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper) hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.
Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper) peeps through windows looking for things to steal.
Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer) has an acute sense of smell, which he uses to locate Laufabrauð 6.
Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) steals meat using his hook.
Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer) follows children to steal their candles – these were once made of tallow and thus edible.
The Yule Lads arrive over the course of 13 nights, starting on December 12th and leading up to Christmas Eve; and depart on December 25th, one lad leaving every day in the same order they arrived.
And there’s more to this quirky family of trolls and pranksters. Their pet, the Yule Cat, lurks around during the Christmas season and swallows those who haven’t received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve.
Legend has it that the threat of the Yule Cat was employed to scare workers into finishing the production on time, for those who partook in the work were rewarded with new clothes, but those who didn’t would leave empty handed and were thus merciless swallowed by the Christmas feline 7.
Is it Christmas time yet? Leave your shoe on the window sill, and wait for the gifts to drop – but only if you have been obedient! If you haven’t, you will get a rotten potato instead!