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.
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 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 (Jólaköttinn) 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