Last week I paid a visit to Viking-central Hafnafjörður, about ten minutes outside of Reykjavík, to experience the delights of the town’s Christmas Market (Jólaþorpið) and join in the festive spirit. Yet the well-known, jolly-red Santa Claus with white beard and magical reindeer was nowhere to be seen; instead, I was greeted by a terrifying hag who chased children, and surrounded by what appeared to be the Seven Dwarves with ASBOs.
Meet Iceland’s most dysfunctional family: thirteen mischievous ‘Yuletide Lads’ (Jólasveinar), their child-eating troll mother Grýla, and her latest husband Leppalúði (she ate her last one, apparently). Last but not least is the household pet, Jólakötturinn (‘Yule Cat’) who, like its blood-thirsty owner, likes to eat people who are not lucky enough to receive new clothes before Christmas. For most of the year Iceland’s most infamous family dwells in the mountains, but during the Christmas Period, watch out: this motley crew of trolls come down to feast on children and cause mayhem.
The main troublemakers the 13 Yuletide Lads, a gang of chaos-causing tricksters whose various names say it all: amongst them are Bjúgnakrækir (‘Sausage-Swiper’) who steals sausages, Hurðaskellir (‘Door-Slammer’) who bangs doors noisily and Gluggagægir (‘Window-Peeper’) who is usually found creeping around outside and perving on unsuspecting folk through their windows. First to arrive in town is Stekkjastaur (‘Sheep-cote clod’) who comes down from his mountain-home on December 12th to harass sheep, but usually fails given his ridiculous wooden peg-legs. After Stekkjastaur, each Yule Lad arrives one day after another until the 24th December, when Kertasníkir (‘Candle-Stealer’) rocks up to complete the ‘Lads on Tour’-esque troop.
Far more terrifying than these 13 young delinquents is, like something out of Eastenders, the Yule Lads’ rampaging mother, Grýla. Although Snorri mentions Grýla in Skáldskaparmál (the section on ‘the language of poetry’ in his 13th-century Edda), her name appears only as one of many in his list of ‘troll-wives’. In fact, Grýla as we know and (maybe not so much) love her pops up a lot later in Iceland, dating as late as the 17th-century. Yet just like times of old, today Grýla still has an insatiable appetite for human children, a blood-lust that sets her tearing through the towns in Iceland in search of naughty girls and boys to munch on. Far less fussy over such trivialities as young-age is the trolls’ trusty household pet, Jólakötturinn (‘Yule Cat’), who happily gobbles up anyone, child or adult, who has not received new clothes for Christmas: a walking version of Cosmo, this style-conscious kitty is on the prowl for anyone in last season’s outfit and will gladly nom on anyone not fortunate enough to replenish their wardrobe.
So there you have it. No rosy-faced, mince-pie munching Santa or his friendly (apparently less fashion-conscious) pet reindeer for Iceland. A family of criminal youths, a troll mother and human-eating cat form the heart of Icelandic Yuletide tradition. In fact, this family of mountain dwellers were deemed so scary that in 1746 a public decree was announced, forbidding the use of Grýla and her posse to terrify children. Nowadays, however, the Yule Lads have turned away from a life of felony and theft, instead leaving small presents in children’s shoes left by the window (and no, that isn’t a euphemism). Rather than dobbing the naughty children in to their hungry mother Grýla, the Yule Lads stay shtum and leave a potato (instead of a present) for undeserving kiddies. Grýla has apparently gone vegetarian, and the Jólakötturinn is no more than your regular, fluffy moggy. Actually, Grýla and her hubby Leppalúði are more commonly seen as the name of Eymundsson’s epic Christmas coffees, complete with a delicious topping of nuts, chocolate and Irish cream: not a child-stew in sight.
It is lovely to see Icelanders so caught up in their own folk tradition. It makes a refreshing change from obese, borderline-alcoholic Santas who grace English and American shops from mid-October, and it is nice to think Iceland is not supporting an international elf-sweatshop trade (even if it does support commercial whaling, grrr). Yet it is still not clear to what extent this tradition really does have earlier, unrecorded medieval precedents or whether it is the product of a later invention entirely, characterised by nationalistic sentiments and Iceland’s constant desire to distinguish itself as ‘different’. Either way, it is a fun tradition and, what’s more, a tradition that justifies a massive shopping splurge before the Christmas sales even set in. After all, you wouldn’t want to offend the Yule Cat would you?