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Inspired by Iceland

Learn about the Icelandic Christmas – Yule Lads

26/11/2012 | By | Reply More

Christmas Season: Iceland has 13 Christmas Yule lads (jólasveinar) who predate Santa by centuries


Two of the Yule lads on a billboard in Dimmuborgir, Iceland

I am pleased to announce this article was originally published by Robie2 on Hubpages. Used with permission of the author.

Everything you read below, is a true story and experience of my own childhood, when I was growing up in Iceland. A true Christmas spirit to calm down the children, in the busy time of the parents, preparing the Christmas season. Here start Robie´s article —

The origins of Iceland’s Christmas Lads are lost in the mists of a Pagan past and in the details of the ancient mid-winter Norse solstice festival which marked the end of winter darkening, and celebrated the gradual return of the sun.

This celebration, (from which we get the English word Yule) involved trees, and bonfires, feasting and fellowship and, in some form, was common to the ancient Celts and Norse throughout northern and western Europe.

Christianity came late to Iceland (not until the year 1000) and when it came, it simply superimposed itself peacefully onto the old pagan practices of the Viking world.

The heathen Yule (or Jól in Icelandic) simply blended into Christmas, and many heathen practices were incorporated into the Christian holiday. Since Iceland was so isolated from the rest of Europe for so long, ancient customs which have long disappeared elsewhere, survived there.

For example, the world may have Santa Claus, but Iceland has 13 Yule Lads (jólasveinar) who predate Santa by centuries. These are not jolly elves or sprites– oh no. these guys are the sons of a child-eating monster called Gryla and her lazy ogre-husband Leppalúði.

They live in Iceland’s mountainous interior with their parents most of the year, and only descend into towns and farms during the Yuletide season.. They come down from the mountains to town, one by one, from December 12th until Christmas.

Originally, they were a pretty rough bunch, snatching naughty children and taking them off to be eaten by their monstrous mother. By the 19th century, however, the Jólasveinar had been tamed. They morphed into today’s jolly Christmas elves who happily leave a little gift in children’s shoes placed expectantly on windowsills every night of Christmas, starting on December 12th, .

The lads go back up the mountains the way they came– one each day in the reverse order of their arrival. The first one departs on Christmas day, with the last one leaving on January 6th ( Twelfth Night, Epiphany or in Icelandic, Þrettándinn.) which marks the end of the Christmas season. Bonfires and celebrations accompany the departure of the last Christmas Lad and Christmas is over until next year.

The names of the boys tell the kind of mischief they traditionally get up to. They have names like Bowl Licker, Candle Beggar, and Door Sniffer (sounds a little weird, huh!). My all-time personal favorite is Door Slammer who traditionally appears on December 18th.

I’ve been known to slam a door or two myself, so I identify with the guy. I can just imagine the wind blowing through a turf-roofed farmhouse and causing the door to slam. Kind of comforting in the dark and the cold to think it is the work of door slammer rather than the wind.

On the other hand, Window Peeper sounds like a bit of a perve, and not very comforting at all.

In modern times the Yule Lads have been depicted as taking on a more benevolent role comparable to Santa Claus and other related figures and putting small gifts (or potatoes if the child has misbehaved) into shoes placed by children into their windows the last thirteen nights before Christmas Eve.

They are occasionally depicted as wearing the costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus, but are otherwise generally shown wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing.

The Icelandic Yule Lads live in Dimmuborgir in the North of Iceland, near magical Mývatn. If something can get you into the christmas spirit then it´s these 13 guys. Learn more about these funny guys from here.

The Christmas Cat – Yule Cat

ChristmasAlong with the 13 Yule Lads, there is another important Christmas character who must be mentioned. The Christmas Cat (Jólakötturinn – Yule Cat). This fearsome feline had an important role to play in centuries past and still lives on in today’s Icelandic Christmas traditions.

From the earliest days of the Norse settlement in Iceland, Winter was the time of year when wool was spun and new clothes were made and it was traditional for everyone to have new clothes for Christmas.

In fact, traditionally, any child who did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas risked being eaten by the dreaded Christmas Cat.

The Icelandic Christmas Cat is no sweet Kittens– no no– a dangerous child noshing monster, is the Icelandic Christmas Cat. Its origins are murky, but again, predate Christianity.

Some say it is the house cat of the Yule Lads’ parents, the mountain-dwelling trolls Gryla and Leppalúði and that it lives with them in their cave, although this seems to be a rather recent development. But everyone agrees that this is one mean feline and that any person who dares not to have at least one new item of clothing at Christmas, risks being gobbled up alive by the Christmas Cat.

No wonder that to this day, it is de rigeur to have at least one new piece of clothing for Christmas in Iceland.

And I’m thinking that back in the old days, when life was hard, the story of the Christmas Cat made it possible for people who had enough to give charity to those who had little without injuring their pride….

The origins of the Christmas Cat are shrouded in mystery, though it bears some resemblance to mythical animal beings that appear during Advent in Iceland’s neighbouring countries. Of those, it probably bears the greatest resemblance to the Nordic Christmas Buck. Both keep a close eye on people during the Advent and prey on anyone who does not receive a new item of clothing for Christmas.

In Scandinavia, people have been known to dress up like the Christmas Buck in games, and some people wonder whether something similar has taken place in Iceland – that is, people dressing in Christmas Cat costumes.

There is no documentation to indicate this, but since the state of not receiving new clothes for Christmas has sometimes been referred to as “dressing the (Yule) Christmas Cat”, it is possible that, at some point, this was taken quite literally.

The Icelanders also refer to it as að fara í Jólaköttinn, literally “to end up in the Christmas Cat”, the common interpretation being that the Christmas Cat will eat those who do not receive any new clothing at Christmas. Yet some people favour a slightly more benign interpretation: that the Christmas Cat will eat the food of anyone who does not receive a new item of clothing for Christmas.

After all, Iceland in winter is not a place where you are going to survive without hats and mittens in winter. The Christmas Cat must have made it easier to give and to accept charitable offers of clothing during the holiday season.

Please view this video below by learning the story of this terrible Cat.




Category: Iceland

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