BY: ADAM THRUSH
Christmas time has many positive connotations attached it; quality time spent with family, good food, and receiving a pile of new things that you’ll probably resell on Craigslist in April. These traditions are generally shared throughout other communities that celebrate Christmas as well. The differences, however, stem in the diversity of folklore attached to the time of year. One of the more interesting Christmas tales comes from Iceland, but before we dive into that weirdness, let’s remember how strange our own English-American Christmas folklore is.
Here’s the general synopsis. An elderly couple lives and works in the Arctic (Canada, Greenland, Norway or perhaps Russia) running a factory of little people that make toys for hundreds of millions of kids. These toys are then personally shipped and hand-delivered by the boss himself and his flying herd of reindeer (one has a red nose which acts as a headlight). After you and your family have purposely put yourselves to bed in order to avoid any hostile confrontation with the factory manager, he squeezes his obese body down your chimney (with or without a fire burning at the bottom), eats your junk food, drinks the milk of a cow, and proceeds to present you with either coloured plastic things in the form of other things (trucks, guitars, a castle, etc.) or, if you’ve had a bad year, a single piece of coal (likely from the train tracks behind your house). These gifts are then typically placed underneath a seven foot dead (but still looks alive) coniferous tree decorated with glass balls. Oh yeah, and all this coincides with the birthday of a Jewish carpenter from Bethlehem (now the West Bank of Palestine) who has a major world religion named after him and based on his life.
The month of December differs greatly to kids in Iceland. The Yule Lads (otherwise known as the 13 Santas or the Yulemen) are a family that live in the northern volcanic region of the country called Dimmuborgir. It’s a barren zone, a few kilometres off the Ring Road (the national highway which circles all of Iceland). Starting on December 12 (13 days before Christmas) one Yule Lad each day will re-emerge from their cave and descend down the mountains to visit Icelandic families throughout the country. Each Yule Lad stays for 13 days, thus the first Yule Lad will remain from December 12 until Christmas Day while the thirteenth Yule Lad will arrive on Christmas Eve and stay until January 6th. On the first day of their arrival, each one comes bearing a gift or a raw, sometimes rotting, potato (again, depending on how good you’ve been) which they put in the shoe of the child.
Each Santa has a completely different personality from the other. Their names are taken from the actions they have been known to partake in. The 13 Yule Lads are: Sheep-Cot Clod, Gully Gawk, Shorty, Ladle Licker, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Door Slammer, Skyr Gobbler, Sausage Swiper, Window Peeper, Door Sniffer, Meat Hook, and Candle Beggar. For example, Door Slammer is known to slam doors in the night while people are sleeping, Skyr Gobbler steals Skyr (an Icelandic dairy product similar to yogurt), while Window Peeper stares at you from outside your window. All are fairly self-explanatory I’d say. Kids blame weird events and occurrences (food going missing, doors slamming, faces in the window) on the specific Yule Lad known to be responsible for something similar to what happened. They’re not always nice to Icelanders, and many are fearful that the Yule Lads might play tricks on them, cause problems, or make them look bad to their parents.
Worse than the 13 Santas are the three additional members of the family: Leppaludi, Gryla, and Yuletide Cat. Not much is known about Leppaludi, other than the fact that he is the father of the 13 Yule Lads and extremely lazy, hardly ever leaving his bed. Gryla, the Child Eater and Mother of the Yule Lads, is known for hunting misbehaving children and boiling them in her cauldron. However, they are able to escape her grasp if they simply repent for their bad behaviour (seems like an easy out). Yuletide Cat also eats kids. It looks for children who don’t have new clothes and chooses them to feast on. The idea is that good kids are given new clothes for Christmas and therefore kids without new clothes must be bad; the logic is seriously flawed but then again, it is coming from the mind of a cat. Non-sequitur excused.
If you’re reading this from outside Iceland, you will be happy to know that the Yule Lads, Gryla and Yuletide Cat can’t swim and thus cannot reach the mainland of North America or Europe. Continue your Christmas as usual without worry. However, if you plan on taking advantage of the many current flight deals to Iceland make sure you see Dimmuborgir (the place, not the metal band) to experience the caves and mountains of the Yule Lads for yourself. Gleðileg jól!