Every year, beginning on December 12, the Icelandic Yule Lads come to town. The Yule Lads—the Santa Clauses of Iceland, really—are 13 mischievous tricksters who sneak into the bedrooms of little children and leave gifts (or potatoes if the children have been naughty) in shoes that the children have left on their windowsills. The arrival of the Yule Lads is, generally, a cause for joyous anticipation.
But it wasn’t always this way.
In the olden days, the Yule Lads – devoid, presumably, of a seasoned press agent – had a very different image; if one could have played a game of word association with 17th-century Icelanders then it is likely that they, when prompted by the phrase “Yule Lads,” would have responded with grisly concepts such as “cannibals,” “monsters,” “black-clad kidnappers of children.”
And for good reason …
The Yule Lads were the progeny of very, very disreputable people.
The first mention of the Icelandic Yule Lads is the 17th-century Poem of Grýla, which asserts that they are the sons of Grýla – a flesh-eating hag who cooks children in a cauldron – and Leppalúði – a lazy troglodyte. Needless to say, such people (trolls) should not reproduce. Ailurophiles (“cat-lovers”) might think better of them knowing that they kept a cat. But not so fast. Theirs was not some amiable Maine Coon, who lazed around their apartment and snuggled up to house callers. No, their cat was the “Christmas Cat,” who prowled the snowy countryside and devoured children who had not been given new clothes to wear before Christmas (admittedly, an oddly specific culinary preference).
Somehow, however, the Yule Lads evolved from clumsy cannibals to avuncular white-bearded elves. Recently, What’s On delved into the history of the Icelandic Yule Lads to shed a little light on their evolution. By what stroke of marketing genius did they become so likeable in the eyes of the youth?
From St. Nick to Sinterklaas to …
Saint Nicholas was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor. After his death, in 342 AD, he became the patron saint of, among other things, children. This patronage traces its origins, at least partially, to the fact that St. Nick was reputed to have resurrected three children who had been pickled by a butcher during a famine (a nice and miraculous thing to do).
As St. Nick died on December 6, Christians henceforth celebrated the Feast of Saint Nicholas on that day.
Almost a millennium later, St. Nick became associated with the phenomenon of gift-giving to children. According to one account, Nick saved three impoverished virgins from prostitution by giving them a generous dowry. Following the Protestant Reformation, however, Lutherans did not like the idea of a Catholic saint bringing their children gifts. And so they engaged in a little revisionist history, revising the myth so that St. Nick was replaced by the Child Jesus (or the Christmas angel). Henceforth, the Child Jesus would be the one giving presents. This tradition never made it to Iceland, however, probably because Danish priests considered the idea of Jesus bringing gifts a Catholic abomination.
After the Reformation, the Netherlands remained the only Lutheran country in Europe to continue the St. Nicholas’ tradition (to this day, December 5 is the main gift-giving day in the Netherlands, because of St. Nick, who eventually became known as Sinterklaas). When Dutch immigrants moved to the States in the 17th century, they took the tradition with them, where it later spread to other immigrants in New York (originally New Amsterdam). At some point, the main gift-giving day was pushed back to December 25, or Christmas Day, in the US.
During the latter half of the 19th century – or between 1870 and 1900 – approximately 15,000 Icelanders (of a total population of 75,000) resettled in North America. Seeing as social media had yet to be invented, Icelandic emigres, like other emigres, were in the habit of sending Christmas cards to family back home. It is likely that these Christmas cards contained imagery that reflected the traditionally red-clad Santa Clause inspired by the Dutch Sinterklaas, which in turn impacted the visual presentation of the Icelandic Yule Lads.
Around the same time, various Christmas traditions were evolving in other European countries: Father Christmas in England, Christmas Nisse in Denmark, Ded Moroz in Russia, etc. It is likely that these Christmas figures, along with the Dutch-inspired American Santa Claus, melded with the Icelandic Yule Lads to form their modern incarnation: white beards, red cheeks, bright eyes, liberty caps, and red coats. Gradually, as time went by, the Yule Lads become the friends of children – and not their foes. Instead of kidnapping and cannibalising young children, they brought them gifts, sang them songs, told them stories.
The earliest known Yule Lad picture in Iceland was published on the front page of the Christmas edition of the Æskan magazine in 1901. The image was thought to have been inspired by the Christmas Nisse (Christmas Elves) from Denmark. The tradition of placing shoes in windowsills started sometime around 1930 in Iceland but didn’t become common until 1950 (the tradition is much older, originating, most likely, sometime in the 15th century).
No Stroke of Marketing Genius, Just History’s Blind March Forward
Long story short: the rebranding of the Icelandic Yule Lads happened by way of the slow, blind crawl of history: a Christian bishop became a Christian saint became a Lutheran outcast, yada yada, until he, and others like him, became intermingled with the Icelandic Yule Lads.
The Icelandic Yule Lads
Below you will find a brief overview of the Yule Lads. The first one arrives on December 12 and leaves on December 25, and the last one arrives on December 24 and leaves on January 6.
Sheep-Cote Clod / Dec. 12
Due to his affinity for sheep milk, Stekkjastaur spends most of his time among humans, breaking into the sheep pens and trying to suckle the ewes. Despite his disability – he has two peg legs, which makes crawling into the sheep pens challenging – he is amazingly resilient in his efforts.
Gully Gawk / December 13
Another fan of dairy products, Giljagaur is a bit more patient, a bit more cunning in his attempts at pilfering milk. He doesn’t go straight to the cow’s udders, rather, he waits until the farmworkers are distracted before swooping in and slurping the froth from the fresh milk.
Stub / December 14
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 special delicacy, going so far as to raid kitchens for dirty pans to get his hands on the good stuff.
Spoon Licker / December 15
Þvörusleikir is extremely tall and skinny, which may explain his passion for wooden spoons (he’s trying to bulk up). Patiently waiting for the work to be finished in the kitchen, Þvörusleikir, quick as a flash, grabs the dirty spoons and licks them clean.
Pot Licker / December 16
Like Stúfur, this Yule Lad also likes to lick remains from the inside of the pots. His crimes are simple but crafty; he knocks on the door, and when residents rush to see who it is, he sneaks into the kitchen and cleans out the pots.
Bowl Licker / December 17
In the old days, Icelanders ate their food from lidded wooden bowls called askar. 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, while keeping his name for old times’ sake.
Door Slammer / December 18
Waking up is never pleasant. Being roused by a loud, unpleasant noise, like a door slamming – even less so. For some reason, Hurðaskellir thinks this is hilarious and goes through town slamming doors for his amusement.
Skyr Gobbler / December 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. This might explain Skyrgámur’s size (he’s said to be the size of a bull) and his habit of eating other people’s skyr.
Sausage Swiper / December 20th
While many of the Yule Lads like stealing food, they’re usually picky about what they take. Bjúga is a salty, smoked Icelandic sausage and a favourite of Bjúgnakrækir. He loves them so much that he doesn’t mind crawling through soot and smoke to get them.
Window Peeper / December 21
Again, the name says it all. However, it’s important to note that his intentions – although not entirely honourable – are mostly food-related. He only peeps into windows to find food to steal.
Door Sniffer / December 22
Gáttaþefur was, from birth, blessed with a huge nose, heightened olfactory senses, and a preternatural immunity to colds. He is, like so many other Icelanders, partial to laufabrauð (leaf bread) and uses his abnormally large nose to sniff it out.
Meat Hook / December 23
Some of the Yule Lads are more industrious and cleverer than others. Ketkrókur, for example, wields a long stick with a hook at the end, perfect for sticking down chimneys to steal meat such as hangikjöt (smoked lamb), which is his favourite.
Candle Beggar / December 24
One of the few Yule Lads not constantly occupied with food, Kertasníkir enjoys stealing candles, preferably from children. This seems especially mean given that in the olden days every child usually got a nice candle for Christmas and not much else.