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:
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.
The first mention of the Yule Lads can be found in the 17th-century poem, Poem of Gryla. Gryla had appeared in older tales as a troll but had not been linked to Christmas before. Gryla is described as a hideous being who is the mother of the gigantic Yule Lads who are a menace to children.
Early on the number and depiction of Yule Lads varied greatly depending on location, with each individual Lad ranging from a mere prankster to a homicidal monster who eats children. They were used to frighten children into good behaviour, similar to the bogeyman. The King of Denmark objected to their use as a disciplinary tool.
In the late 18th century a poem mentions there being 13 of them. In the mid-19th century, author Jón Árnason drew inspiration from the brothers Grimm and began collecting folktales. His 1862 collection is the first mention of the names of the Yule Lads.
In 1932, the poem Yule Lads was published as a part of the popular poetry book Christmas is Coming (Jólin koma) by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum. The poem was popular and so established what is now considered the canonical 13 Yule Lads, their names, and their personalities.
Gryla[a] is originally mentioned as being a giantess in the 13th century compilation of Norse mythology, Prose Edda, but no specific connection to Christmas is mentioned until the 17th century. She is enormous and her appearance is repulsive.
The oldest poems about Gryla describe her as a parasitic beggar who walks around asking parents to give her their disobedient children. Her plans can be thwarted by giving her food or by chasing her away. Originally, she lives in a small cottage, but in later poems she appears to have been forced out of town and into a faraway cave.
Current-day Gryla has the ability to detect children who are misbehaving year-round. During Christmas time, she comes from the mountains to search nearby towns for her meal. She leaves her cave, hunts children, and carries them home in her giant sack. She devours children as her favorite snack. Her favorite dish is a stew of naughty kids for which she has an insatiable appetite. According to legend, there is never a shortage of food for Gryla.
According to folklore, Gryla has been married three times. Her third husband Leppaludi[b] is said to be living with her in their cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields, with the big black Yule Cat and their sons. Leppaludi is lazy and mostly stays at home in their cave. Gryla supposedly has dozens of children with her previous husbands, but they are rarely mentioned nowadays.
The Yule Cat[c] a huge and vicious cat who is described as lurking about the snowy countryside during Christmas time and eating people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. He is the house pet of Gryla and her sons.
Though referred to as an ancient tradition, written accounts of the Yule Cat have only been located as recently as the 19th century. The threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was used by farmers as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. The ones who took part in the work would be rewarded with new clothes, but those who did not would get nothing and thus would be preyed upon by the monstrous cat. The cat has alternatively been described as merely eating away the food of ones without new clothes during Christmas feasts. The perception of the Yule Cat as a man-eating beast was partly popularized by poems of Jóhannes úr Kötlum as with the rest of the folklore.
The Yule Lads[d] (sometimes named Yuletide-lads or Yulemen) are the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi. They are a group of 13 mischievous pranksters who steal from or otherwise 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 (Yule). 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.
In modern times the Yule Lads have been depicted as also taking on a more benevolent role comparable to Santa Claus and other related figures. They are generally depicted as wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing, but are sometimes shown wearing the costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus, especially at children's events.
The Yule Lads arrive during the last 13 nights before Christmas, beginning 12 December. They depart beginning on Christmas, one per day, in the order that they arrived; each thus stays 13 days. Below are the canonical 13 Yule Lads in the order they arrive (and depart):
|Icelandic name||English translation||Description||Arrival||Departure|
|Stekkjarstaur||Sheep-Cote Clod||Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.||12 December||25 December|
|Giljagaur||Gully Gawk||Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.||13 December||26 December|
|Stúfur||Stubby||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|
|Skyrgámur||Skyr-Gobbler||A Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt).||19 December||1 January|
|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 their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).||24 December||6 January|
Names in English are based on Hallberg Hallmundsson's translation of the poem.
Before these 13 Yule Lads became the most popular, the description of them varied between locations. Some were said to be sons of Gryla, others were her brothers. Some stories only describe nine Yule Lads, but every one of them had their own characteristic prank.
Most of the different Yule Lads can be classified into groups: Those who steal food, those who like to play tricks or harass, and those who just seem to be a delusion from nature (for example Gully Gawk who just hides in gullies).
In the East of Iceland there existed a folk tale of a specific group of Yule Lads who did not come from the mountains but from the ocean. One very obscure nursery rhyme mentions there being two female Yule pranksters who steal melted fat by either stuffing it up their nose or putting it in socks.