Name: Jólasveinarnir / Yule Lads
From: Icelandic Folklore
Classification: 13 Christmas trolls that bring good children gifts.
In a follow-up to last weeks Monstrous Monday entry of the Jólakötturinn (Yule Cat), lets talk about 13 trolls that call the Yule Cat their pet.
Beginning on December 12th the children of Iceland have something to be excited about, or maybe not depending on how they behaved during the year. On December 12th the first of 13 trolls known as the Yule Lads descend from their mountain home to visit children and either leave them a gift if they’ve been good or a rotten potato if they’ve been bad. The gifts (or potatoes) are doled out in the child’s nicest shoes which have been left out on the window sill overnight. This ritual continues for the next 12 nights and ends on Christmas Eve when the last troll leaves the biggest gifts for the good girls and boys and biggest and most rotten potatoes for the bad children. Once the Yule Lads arrive, they stay in the area until the 25th of December, then they leave one-by-one starting with the first to arrive until they’ve all returned to their mountain cave by January 6th.
Each one of the 13 brothers has have gained their own personality over the centuries and many people have a favorite one. Albeit odd at times, the names and personalities are heavily steeped in Icelandic culture and history. Which is awesome! Like with the Yule Cat, the Yule Lads gained more of a characterization through the book of collected poems Jólin Koma (“Christmas Is Coming”) by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum.
The first to arrive on December 12th is Stekkjarstaur (Sheep-Cote Clod) who harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs. On the 13th, Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) who hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk. The 14th brings Stúfur (Stubby) who is abnormally short and steals pans to eat the crust left on them. The 15th, Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker) who Steals Þvörur (a type of a wooden spoon with a long handle) to lick and is extremely thin due to malnutrition. Next is Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper) who arrives on the 16th and steals leftovers from pots. By the 17th Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker) will be hiding under your bed waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals. On the 18th Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer) can be heard at all hours of the night slamming doors. Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler) will come on the 19th and possibly steal all of your skyr (yogurt). On the 20th Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper) will be hiding in your rafts, ready to steal the sausage being smoked. Looking through your windows on the 21st, looking for stuff to steal is Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper). On the 22nd Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer) arrives and uses his abnormally large nose and acute sense of smell to locate laufabrauð (bread). The 2nd to last Yule Lad to arrive is Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook), who uses a large hook to steal meat. The last and biggest gift giver is Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer) who follows children in order to steal their candles (which in those days were made of tallow and thus edible). Jeez, it’s like the Hobbit …
The people of Iceland love to boast that they have 13 Santa Clauses compared to the mere one Santa other countries have adopted. I have to admit, it does sound like a sweet deal but the origins of the Jólasveinarnir are a much darker and deadlier affair which has been lost to time. So I’ll keep my one Santa, thank you very much.
The lore of the Jólasveinarnir is very ancient, so old in fact that no one knows the exact year it began. The Yule Lad’s origin is tied to two other ancient creatures of Icelandic folklore, Grýla and Leppalúði, but husband and wife’s ties to Christmas didn’t begin until 17th Century. These ancient troll/giant/ogres (depends on region) are the parents of the 13 Yule Lads. Like their parents, the Jólasveinarnir had a penchant for eating children, especially misbehaving children. The Yule Lads were known to be merry pranksters but when the situation called for it they could gobble up some children with no problem. Or if the situation wasn’t sever enough to eat a child, a stern beating would do.
This was the type of leverage parents thrived on. If you’re good, good things happen to you but if you’re bad, you get eaten alive by a troll. The fear of the Jólasveinarnir was so bad that a royal decree about religious practice and domestic discipline parents were banned from disciplining their children by scaring them with horror stories of monsters like the Yule Lads in the 18th century. Old stories describe monsters with little resemblance to humans, but by the 19th century they had assumed a human form. When wealthy merchants began hosting public Christmas tree balls at the end of the 19th century the Yule Lads had become friendly old men who brought treats.
It was around this time that the story of the Jólakötturinn (Yule Cat) began picking up steam in the 19th century. The Jólakötturinn became the “bad cop” to the Yule Lad’s new “good cop” persona. Since you couldn’t discipline your child’s behavior through fear, the Yule Cat had no problem eating adults and children alike due to their work ethic and its reflection on one’s clothing for the season. At least I guess as much. There is no clear cut path between these instances but scholars question the sudden and dominating appearance of the Yule Cat during the 19th Century.
What makes the story of the Yule Lads even cooler is that their home is a very real place, the Dimmuborgir (translated to dark cities) lava fields. Located east of Mývatn in Iceland. The Dimmuborgir area is composed of various volcanic caves and rock formations, reminiscent of an ancient collapsed citadel (hence the name). The dramatic structures are one of Iceland’s most popular natural tourist attractions. During the months of November and December the Yule Lads can been seen tromping around on the snowy mountainside and meeting with visitors. Each actor that plays one of the Yule Lads plays up the troll’s personality to the hilt.
It is said that if you poke around the lava fields and search the caves you can even find the Jólasveinarnir home. Outside is a cooking pot, skis, and a clothesline with laundry. Kinda makes the pop-up mall Santa in my town look bad now.
Traditions like the Yule Lads make my heart very happy. Sure it’s attached to commercialization just like Santa Claus nowadays but the magic still feels to have a pureness to it. Maybe its the shoes, or the potatoes, or the fact that you have to keep the magic alive for 13 days opposed to just one…it sounds beautiful.