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The Icelandic Christmas Cat

The Icelandic Christmas Cat Wants to Eat You

The Icelandic Christmas Cat, Yule Cat, or Jólakötturinn, is probably Iceland’s most famous cat. It is the pet of child-eating monster Grýla and her husband Leppalúði. They are the parents of the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads.

We all love cats, and cats love Christmas (especially Christmas trees)! The Christmas Cat is not cute, though. She’s a gigantic kitty that likes to scratch! As legend goes, she eats everyone who doesn’t have new clothes to wear for Christmas, so it might be a good idea to go Christmas shopping soon… Some people say that the Christmas Cat just eats the Christmas dinner of those without new clothes for Christmas, so that’s not so bad – all things considered.

Icelandic Christmas Cat
The Icelandic Christmas Cat.

Story goes that farmers used the Christmas Cat to scare their workers into working harder and finishing processing the wool harvest before Christmas – only the hardest workers would be rewarded with new clothes, and the lazy ones left without new clothes would be the cat’s next victims.

On Laekjartorg square, you can visit an enormous Christmas Cat. The city puts the sculpture up during Advent and Christmas, and it’s the perfect spot for a Christmassy family photo with the lit-up cat (“Look, mom, the cat is going to eat me, haha…”). The sculpture is 5 metres [16ft] tall and 6 metres [19ft] wide and decorated with 6,500 LED lights.

The Icelandic Christmas Cat
Make sure you wear new clothes this Christmas.

The Christmas Cat was made famous in a 1932 poem by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum. Björk also recorded a popular version of the poem in the late 1980s. You can read a translation of the poem by Thor Ewing below.

The Yule Cat (Jólakötturinn) by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, trans. & copyright by Thor Ewing

You’ve heard about the Yule Cat —

     He really was immense;

     Nobody knew where he came from,

     Nobody knew where he went.

     He’d flash his eyes wide open

     And both were glowing bright;

     It was not for the faint-hearted

     To face that awful sight.

     His whiskers sharp as meat-hooks,

     His back was arched up high,

     And the claws upon his shaggy paws

     Were dreadful to espy.

     He’d shake his mighty tail,

     He’d leap, he’d scratch and puff,

     Sometimes down in the valley,

     Sometimes up on the bluff.

     Hungry, wild and grim he roamed

     Through bitter winter snow,

     Gave everyone the shivers

     Wherever he might go.

     If you heard a dismal yowl outside

     Your luck had just run out;

     It was men not mice he hunted —

     Of that there was no doubt.

     He preyed upon the poor folk

     Who got no gifts for Yule,

     Who struggled to keep going,

     Whose life was hard and cruel.

     He took all of their Yuletide food

     From the table and the shelf,

     He left them not a morsel,

     He ate it all himself.

     And so the women laboured

     With spindle, reel and rock,

     To make a little coloured patch

     Or just a single sock.

     Because he couldn’t come inside

     To catch the little ones,

     If you had given clothes

     To your daughters and your sons.

     And when the candles were kindled,

     When Yule Night was come,

     The children clutched their presents

     As the cat outside looked on.

     Some might get an apron,

     Some shoes or other stuff,

     As long as they’d got something,

     That would be enough.

     Because Kitty couldn’t eat them

     If they had new clothes to put on;

     He’d hiss and howl horribly,

     And then he would be gone.

     Whether he’s about still

     I really couldn’t tell,

     But if everyone gets gifts for Yule,

     Then all may yet be well.

     Perhaps you will remember

     To help with gifts yourself;

     Perhaps there still are children

     Who would get nothing else.

     Maybe if you can help those

     Who need a little cheer,

     It will bring you a Good Yule

     And a Happy New Year!

Translated by Thor Ewing from the poem Jólakötturinn by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (1899-1972)

Translation Copyright © Thor Ewing 2015

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