The Yule Lads: Iceland’s Thirteen Mischievous Santa Clauses
Before Christianity, the midwinter holiday was simply called jól, which is a version of the Old English word Yule, a time to gather and feast. It was a time to bring relatives, both living and deceased, together as well as elves, trolls, and other mystical beings, or hidden folk believed to inhabit the landscape. Around 1000 AD, the King of Norway decreed that Christianity should be the official religion of the kingdom, and sent missionaries to convert the Icelanders. This did not, however, wipe out the extant Icelandic traditions; it simply changed them to fit with Christianity.
The Hidden People
In Iceland, the Huldufólk, or hidden people, were beings that lived in another dimension, one that was very close to ours. With the advent of Christianity, the belief in the hidden folk was adapted and one of the current theories is that the hidden folk are Eve’s strange children who she hid from God, while another is that they are fallen angels. Icelanders still take the hidden folk seriously, and there are accounts of interactions with these beings. According to some figures, 54% of Icelanders believe the hidden folk are real rather than just a myth.
The Ogre That Eats Children
One of those “strange children” is Grýla, an ogre whose name translates loosely to Growler. Some see her as a personification of the threat of winter and the never-ending turbulence of the Icelandic landscape. According to the stories, Grýla descends from the mountains on Christmas to boil naughty children alive and eat them. She and her husband Leppalúði, a lazy ogre who eats what she cooks, steal the Christmas food as well. Their thieving companion, the Yule Cat accompanies them, eating anyone who is not wearing at least one new item of clothing. Grýla is also the mother of the Yule Lads, 13 of the hidden folk whose names are derived from their specific type of mischief.
A Different Yule Lad Visits Each Night
The Yule Lads are said to visit children in Iceland on each of the 13 nights leading to Christmas. Each night, the children leave a shoe on the windowsill. If the child is good, they find the shoe filled with candy and toys. If they are bad, they receive a raw or rotting potato. In return, they are supposed to leave treats that correspond to the yule lad’s personality. The first of the Yule Lads, Stekkjastaur, Sheep Worrier, arrives the night before December 12th. He is known to have two wooden feet, and he sucks the milk from sheep, and children are supposed to leave milk for him. He is followed by Giljagaur or Gully Gawk who hides in barns and steals the froth from milk buckets. For Pvoruskleikir, or Spoon Licker, they should leave spoons covered in batter. They are supposed to leave candles for Kertasnikir, or Candle Beggar, who supposedly eats the candles, which were traditionally made from tallow and essential for the long, cold, dark Icelandic winter nights.
They Steal Things To Eat
For the most part, these 13 Yule Lads are driven by hunger, and the pranks they play are centered on the theft of specific types of food, from milk to sausages to skyr (Icelandic yogurt) to candles. One of the Lads, Hurðaskellir, or Door-Slammer, is simply noisy. Because of the nature of their mischief, many believe the legends to have started around homeless, poor, and hungry men who in the cold Icelandic winter were just trying to survive.
They Have Changed With The Times
The Yule Lads suffered the consequences of the times. According to a 16th century law, “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.” Another law, this one passed in 1746, forbade parents from telling stories of the Yule Lads to scare children. However, the Yule Lads have reappeared, albeit cleaned up a bit. Their current public image as friendly, mischievous characters has been seemingly morphed by Christmas.
A Poem Brought Them Back
In 1932, a poem restored the Yule Lads, although there are more of them than are mentioned in this poem by Jóhannes frá Kötlum. His poem, “Jólasveinavísur” is a bit like “The Night Before Christmas,” and the Yule Lads are fun pranksters, stealing food and pans, not malicious like their earlier incarnations. More recent depictions of the Yule Lads show them dressed in red, carrying sacks of toys to leave in shoes; they now resemble Santa Claus. However, the Icelanders who claim to have actually seen the Yule Lads describe these elves as poor, hungry, a little rude, and dressed in old-fashioned clothes, just like they were before Christmas began to dominate the season. The National Museum of Iceland has recently worked to take the Yule Lads back to who they were before Santa.