Yule Season and the advent of the Yule Lads
"Let me tell the story
of the lads of few charms,
who once upon a time
used to visit our farms.
these gents in their prime
didn´t want to irk people
all at one time."
~ “Jólasveinarnir” by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (1899-1972), English translation by Hallberg Hallmundsson
The Yule Lads are figures from Icelandic Christmas folklore who arrive during the last 13 nights before Christmas, beginning the 12th of December, delivering gifts to children and playing pranks. Like the Krampus of European folklore, in the past these figures took on more sinister aspects and were used to frighten children into good behavior. Over time, they evolved into less terrifying creatures and are much anticipated for their gifts and evidence of their pranks during the yuletide season. The 13 Yule Lads include the Stekkjarstaur the Sheep-Cote Clod (who harasses sheep, but is impaired from doing this well by his peg legs); Bjúgnakrækir the Sausage-Swiper (who hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked); and Gáttaþefur the Doorway Sniffer (who has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread)!
Icelandic Christmas folklore depicts mountain-dwelling characters and monsters who come to town during Christmas. The stories are directed at children and are used to scare them into good behaviour. The folklore includes both mischievous pranksters who leave gifts during the night and monsters who eat disobedient children!
The figures are depicted as living together as a family in a cave and include:
Gryla and Leppaludi – Gryla is a giantess with an appetite for the flesh of mischievous children, who she cooks in a large pot. Her husband, Leppaludi, is lazy and mostly stays at home in their cave.
The Yule Lads are the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi. They are a group of 13 mischievous pranksters who steal from or harass the population and all have descriptive names that convey their favorite way of harassing. They come to town one by one during the last 13 nights before Christmas. They leave small gifts in shoes that children have placed on window sills, but if the child has been disobedient they instead leave a potato in the shoe.
These Christmas-related folk tales first appear around the 17th century and display some variation based on region and age. In modern times these characters have taken on a slightly more benevolent role.
Not only are there the 13 Santa Claus-like visits, but Icelandic Christmas folklore also describes the visitation of Grýla who comes down from the mountains on Christmas and boils naughty children alive as well as the giant, blood-thirsty Christmas Cat that prowls around the country on Christmas Eve and eats anyone who's not wearing at least one new piece of clothing.
In 1746 parents were officially banned from tormenting their kids with monster stories about those particular creatures. Today, the stories have evolved the monsters into benign beings, who only play harmless tricks. mostly benign--save for the harmless tricks they like to play.
Each of the Yule Lads has his own distinct personality. Their names, however, remained a point of much interpretation and debate until recently. As the National Museum of Iceland describes:
Stekkjarstaur - Sheep-Cote Clod - Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs. 12 December- 25 December
GiljagaurGully- Gawk- Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.13 December- 26 December
StúfurStubby- Abnormally short - Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.14 December- 27 December
Þvörusleikir- Spoon-Licker- Steals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.15 December-28 December
Pottaskefill- Pot-Scraper- Steals leftovers from pots.16 December-29 December
Askasleikir- Bowl-Licker- Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their "askur" (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.17 December-30 December
Hurðaskellir-Door-Slammer- Likes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.18 December-31 December
Bjúgnakrækir- Sausage-Swiper- Hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked. 20 December - 2 January
Gluggagægir- Window-Peeper- A snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal. 21 December- 3 January
Gáttaþefur - Doorway-Sniffer - Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð). 22 December- 4 January
Ketkrókur- Meat-Hook - Uses a hook to steal meat. 23 December- 5 January
Kertasníkir- Candle-Stealer - Follows children in order to steal and eat their candles. 24 December- 6 January
Dozens of different names for the Yule Lads appear in different folk tales and stories. A popular poem about the Yule Lads by the late Jóhannes úr Kötlum, which first appeared in the book Jólin koma (Christmas is Coming) in 1932, served to make their names and number much better known. The names of the 13 Yule Lads that most Icelanders know today are all derived from this poem.
For more on the Yule Lads, click the picture!