Unlike most other countries that only have one Santa Claus, Iceland has thirteen. They are called Jólasveinar (Yule lads or perhaps Christmas boys) and take turns visiting our children the 13 nights leading up to Christmas Eve. Children place one of their shoes on the windowsill of their rooms on each of those nights. For those children that behave well during that day the Yule lads will leave candy or a small treat but for those who behave badly can expect a rotten potato.
Traditionally the Yule lads behaved as you would expect trolls to behave and they received their names as to describe their mischievious behaviour such as Door-Slammer who likes to slam doors loudly, Spoon-Licker who likes to steal unwashed spoons with traces of food and lick them clean etc.
The Yule lads are generally depicted as wearing “traditional” peasant´s garb, wool and sheepskins but are sometimes shown wearing the costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus, especially at children´s events.
The stories of the Yule lads first appeared in the 17th century but in the early 20th century the tradition of the 13 lads changed and they picked up the gift-giving habits of their foreign colleagues.
The Yule lads are a part of an Icelandic Christmas folklore that depict mountain-dwelling characters and trolls who come to town during the Christmas period. The parents of the Yule lads are trolls called Grýla (mother) and Leppalúði (father). In the tails Grýla is a scary troll who has the ability to detect when children misbehave, hunts them down, and takes them back to her cave for making stew of them. Leppalúði is known as the lazy husband who does not do much other than annoy Grýla and enjoy her food. Together they have around seventy children including the 13 Yule Lads. This “nice” couple own a big black cat known as the Christmas cat (jólakötturinn). The Christmas cat is vicious and even scarier than Grýla it likes to hunt people who do not receive anything new to wear for Christmas and eats them - not a typically well received notion in modern cultures 😊. A poem about Jólakötturinn is quite popular among children today - here is a link to it, song by the well known singer Björk.
More on Christmas traditions and beliefs
The Yule Lads in the order they arrive from the mountain:
December 12 – Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote-Clod) is the first Yule Lad who comes to town on the night before the 12th of December and also the first to depart for home on the 25th December. He was said to harass sheep, suck milk from them and was known for having two stiff peg-legs.
December 13 – Giljagaur (Gully Gawk). The second Yule Lad comes on the night before the 13th of December and departs for home on the 26th of December. He was known to hide in barns and steal the froth of the milk buckets.
December 14 – Stúfur (Stubby). The third of the Yule lads comes on the night before the 14th of December and departs for home on the 27th of December. He was known for being unusually short and for stealing pans so he can eat crust lefts on them.
December 15 – Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker). The fourth of the Yule Lads comes on the night before the 15th of December and departs for home on the 28th of December. He was known for being tall, thin, and for stealing þvörur (long wooden spoons) to lick them.
December 16 – Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper). The fifth of the Yule Lads comes on the night before the 16th of December and departs for home on the 29th of December. He was known to steal leftovers from pots.
December 17 – Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker). The sixth of the Yule Lads comes on the eve of the 17th of December and departs for home on the 30th of December. He was known to hide under beds when people would place their “askur,” a plate used for all meals. He then stole the askur and ate from it.
December 18 – Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer). The seventh of the Yule Lads comes on the night before the 18th of December and departs for home on the 31st of December. He was known to be the loudest one, slamming doors, especially during nighttime.
December 19 – Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler). The eighth of the Yule Lads comes on the night before the 19th of December and leaves on the first of January. He was known for being obsessed with the Icelandic yoghurt, Skyr.
December 20 – Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper). The ninth of the Yule Lads comes on the eve of the 20th of December and departs for home on the second of January. He was known to hide in the rafters and steal sausages that were being smoked.
December 21 – Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper). The tenth of the Yule Lads comes on the night before the 21st of December and departs for home on the third of January. He was known for being probably the creepiest one, he would peek inside people’s windows to see if there was anything to steal.
December 22 – Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer). The eleventh of the Yule Lads comes on the night before the 22nd of December and departs for home on the fourth of January. He was known to have an extremely long, large nose and an amazing sense of smell he usually uses to seek out the Icelandic traditional leavebred (Laufabrauð).
December 23 – Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook). The twelfth of the Yule Lads comes on the night before the 23rd of December and departs for home on the fifth of January. He was known for being the one who uses a hook to steal meat.
December 24 – Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer). The thirteenth of the Yule Lads comes on the night before the 24th of December and departs for home on the last day of Christmas or the 6th of January. He was known for being the one who followed children to steal their candles (which used to be edible, made from fat).
Photos: Agnes Lebeaupin, Marcin Kozazcek
Drawings: Brian Pilkington