The Icelandic Yule Lads & Family
Most countries where Christmas is celebrated have their own version of a benevolent person, creature, or thing, that gives children treats around Christmastime. Italy has a Christmas witch, Spain has a present-pooping log, and America and the UK have, of course, Santa Claus. Icelandic Christmas, however, takes things a little bit further; we have thirteen Yule lads, each with their own definitive character. They live in a cave in an undisclosed location in the mountains with their mother, the formidable Grýla, her wimpy husband, Leppalúði, and the Christmas Cat.
Grýla is an Icelandic troll who eats naughty children. She lives in a cave and always has a pot of boiling water at the ready, should she hear of some exceptionally naughty children. Grýla also travels with a large sack for convenient transport of the children she catches. (it should be noted that Icelandic trolls are different from the Norwegian ones and nothing like the internet ones either. Think large and mountain-like.)
Grýla’s third husband is not known for anything much, except for being really lazy. He doesn’t travel like the rest of his family, just sits around the cave waiting for Grýla to bring him food. His name has become synonymous with being extremely ugly and/or poorly dressed.
It sounds cosy, but the Christmas cat is actually the sinister sidekick of the ghastly child-eating Grýla. The Christmas Cat lives with her and her wuss of a husband in their cave and children who don’t get a new item of clothing for Christmas end up in its belly. This absolutely does not make any sense but it’s a good excuse to go shopping.
The Yule Lads
The Icelandic Yule Lads are the thirteen sons of Grýla (the folklore is not really clear on their paternity, as Leppalúði is her third husband). In the Iceland of yore, they were an incredible nuisance and brought grief to the general populace, stealing food and pranking people, whereas today they’ve morphed into the kinder, gentler Yule Lads who leave gifts in the shoes of kiddies who have been good all year.
— INtroducing the yule lads —
Drawings by Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir
Sheep-Cote Clod / Dec. 12th
Due to his affinity for sheep milk, Stekkjastaur spends most of his time among the humans breaking into the sheep pens and trying to suckle the ewes. He is resilient in his efforts despite his disability, his two peg legs that make crawling into the sheep pens challenging.
Gully Gawk / Dec. 13th
Another fan of dairy products, Giljagaur is a bit more patient and cunning in his attempts at milk theft. He doesn’t try to go straight to the cow’s udders but waits until the farm workers are distracted before he swoops in and slurps the froth off the fresh milk.
Stubby / Dec. 14th
Stúfur is named for his height – or lack thereof. For some reason, he considers burnt bits of food that get stuck to the pan a particular delicacy and goes so far as to raid kitchens for dirty pans to get his hands on the good stuff.
Spoon Licker / Dec. 15th
Þvörusleikir is extremely tall and skinny, which might have had some influence on his love for wooden spoons. He waits patiently for the work to be finished in the kitchen before he, quick as a flash, grabs the dirty spoons and licks them.
Pot Licker / Dec. 16th
Like Stúfur, this Yule Lad also likes to lick the remains from the inside of the pots. His crimes are simple but thought-out; he knocks at the door, and when the inhabitants rush to see who it is, he sneaks into the kitchen and cleans out the pots.
Bowl Licker / Dec. 17th
In the old days, Icelanders ate their food from a lidded wooden bowl called askur. Askasleikir would creep in, hide, and snatch the askar whenever they were put aside, licking their insides clean. Since most people have upgraded to plates, he probably has too, but keeps his name, for old times’ sake.
Door Slammer / Dec. 18th
Waking up is never pleasant, and being woken by a loud noise such as a door slamming is even less so. For some reason, Hurðaskellir thinks this is hilarious and goes through town slamming doors for his own amusement.
Skyr Gobbler / Dec 19th
For the uninitiated, skyr (pron. skeer) is a dairy product, halfway between cheese and yoghurt. It’s fat-free, high in protein, and delicious! That should explain both Skyrgámur’s size (he’s said to be the size of a bull) and his habit of eating other people’s skyr.
Sausage Swiper / Dec 20th
Many of the yule lads like to steal food but they’re picky about what they want to take. Bjúga is a salty, smoked Icelandic sausage, a favourite of Bjúgnakrækir. He loves them so much, he doesn’t mind crawling through soot and smoke to get them.
Window Peeper / Dec 21st
Again, the name really says it all. However, it’s important to note that his intentions, although not honourable, are mostly food-related. He only peeps in windows in order to locate food he could possibly steal.
Door Sniffer / Dec 22nd
Gáttaþefur was from birth blessed with a huge nose, heightened olfactory senses, as well as the ability to never catch a cold. He is, as so many other Icelanders, partial to laufabrauð, and uses his abnormally large nose to sniff out its hiding places.
Meat Hook / Dec 23rd
It’s obvious that some of the Yule Lads are more industrious and clever than others. Ketkrókur, for example, travels around with a long stick with a hook at the end, perfect for sticking it down chimneys in order to steal meat, preferably hangikjöt (smoked lamb).
Candle Beggar / Dec 24th
One of the few Yule Lads not constantly occupied with food, Kertasníkir instead enjoys stealing candles, preferably from children. This seems especially mean when you know that in the old days every kid usually got a nice candle at Christmas and sometimes not much else.