Iceland celebrates Christmas like most Western countries, with delicious food, gifts for loved ones, and family gatherings. Unlike most countries that have a single Father Christmas or Santa Claus, Icelandic children are fortunate enough to be visited by 13 Yule Lads (or Jólasveinar) over the last 13 nights before Christmas.
The Yule Lads originate from Icelandic folklore, but are, of course, very much alive and well. In Icelandic they are called Jólasveinar and are the Icelandic multiplied version of Santa Claus! The Yule Lads are like trolls that live in the mountains and come to town one by one, in December each year. Each Yule Lad has a very specific character trait and will, therefore, behave in a particular manner. The 13 brothers are considered to be crooks and their names explain their special behaviour (see below).
They are children of Grýla (a horrible troll) and Leppalúði (her awful husband), and Icelandic children are scared of them for reasons that shouldn’t be discussed here any further. Their equally scary pet, the big black Christmas Cat (Jólakötturinn) should also be mentioned here. We shouldn’t go into detail about its role in the troll family, but some would say it is similar to Azrael, the cat of wizard Gargamel from the widely known comic The Smurfs. The Christmas Cat can be seen in downtown Reykjavik every day (and night) in December. It is set up with 6,500 LED lights, and luckily, therefore, looks rather festive than scary.
To continue with traditions, Icelandic children place a shoe in their bedroom window with excitement, each evening of the last 13 days leading to Christmas. Every night one Yule Lad visits, leaving sweets, small gifts or a rotting potato, depending on how that particular child behaved the preceding day.
This tradition has been used by parents throughout the years and is nowadays considered as one of the most successful ways of parenting, to make sure the kids go to bed early and behave well. No kid wants to jump out of its bed with excitement the next morning, only to find a rotten potato in its shoe, because of bad behaviour the day before. With all the cold, long and dark days in December and the melancholia that comes with it, it goes without saying that this special parenting trick is much needed. Luckily, winter is the season of the beautiful Northern Lights, and Icelanders are fortunate enough to see the spectacular phenomenon in the sky every now and then, so the long nights are only half as bad.
The 13 Yule Lads are:
• Stekkjarstaur (likes to tease sheep and has wooden legs),
• Giljagaur (likes to steal milk),
• Stúfur (is the shortest one and likes to eat the pie crust from stolen pans),
• Þvörusleikir (steals and licks all wooden spoons he can get),
• Pottaskefill (steals leftovers from pots),
• Askasleikir (hides under the bed and licks all bowls he can find),
• Hurðaskellir (likes to wake kids up by slamming doors),
• Skyrgámur (loves skyr),
• Bjúgnakrækir (hides under the roof and steals sausages),
• Gluggagægir (looks through windows, for something to steal),
• Gáttaþefur (sniffs for delicious laufabrauð or “leaf-bread”),
• Ketkrókur (steals meat with his hook),
• Kertasníkir (steals candles from kids).