Legends and customs around Christmas differ from nation to nation. Among them are tales of a villainous sidekick searching for mischievous kids, Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve, and festive, deep-fried caterpillars. The Christmas folklore of Iceland For years, youngsters have been charmed by the 13 Yule Lads.
The Jolasveinar, also known as the Yule Lads, visit well-behaved children and bring gifts instead of Santa. Discover the plot, the identities of the Yule Lads, and how Iceland incorporates them into their Christmas festivities by continuing to read.
What Is the Story of the 13 Yule Lads?
There are many old legends that parents in Iceland and many other Nordic countries pass along to their offspring. The Christmas legend surrounding the 13 Yule Lads is particularly well-known because its primary objective is still to persuade kids to behave well throughout the year. The 13 Yule Lads are able to distinguish between well-behaved and disobedient youngsters, much to the American legend that claims Santa has a list of all the good and bad kids.
Grýla, the Yule Lads’ mother, makes the first mention of them. Grúla is described in the book as an ogre or troll and the mother of the 13 larger-than-life Yule Lads in the poem of the same name written in the seventeenth century. Grúla stews mischievous children in a big pot for consumption, while her sons, the Yule Lads, track out the misbehaving kids in a community and stuff rotting potatoes into their shoes.
The Yule Lads differed based on the location of Iceland in terms of appearance, quantity, and behaviour during this time, and parents used the narrative to “scare” their kids into good behaviour. A century or so later, the Danish King denounced children adopting this tradition as a tool of behaviour modification and discipline.
The tale of the Yule lads was reused by a rising author a century after the King of Denmark’s proclamation. Jón Árnason updated the Yule Lad story to have a slightly softer narrative and made Iceland’s first folktale book to be published. Árnason gave the Yule Lads a main plot and fixed names, drawing inspiration from the German writers, the Brothers Grimm. He incorporated local folklore into Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur og Æfintýri, his collection from 1862.
Although Árnason laid the foundation for the current 13 Yule Lads tale, Jóhannes úr Kötlum didn’t codify the official legend with the brothers’ adopted names, character traits, and behaviours until 1932.
The Story From a Local
AZ Animals spoke with photographer Kari Björn, an Icelandic native who grew up enjoying customs similar to the 13 Yule Lads, to get a local’s perspective on the holiday. He related the following tale to AZ.
“The Yule Lads, along with their father Leppalúði, mother Grýla, and cat Jólakötturinn, reside in the highlands of Iceland.” From December 12th to December 24th, one of them makes an evening arrival from the highlands, bringing presents or potatoes to each youngster who puts their shoe in a window. The child receives a gift if they have behaved well. However, they receive a potato if they haven’t. After spending thirteen days “in town,” they return to the mountains. For instance, Kertasníkir arrives on December 24 and departs on January 6, which is when Icelandic Christmas officially ends. Every year on January 6, the nation celebrates the departure of the Yule Lads with massive bonfires and fireworks.
B went on, giving some background information about Icelandic culture. The tale of Grýla and Leppalúði and its significance for gender equality in Iceland is the final point to be made. Grýla appears more frequently in the stories than Leppalúði. In reality, he is more of a supporting figure who is infamous for being a moron and slothful. Grýla is the family matriarch and the one in charge of everything.
Who Are the 13 Yule Lads?
The first Yule Lad, known as Stepkjarstaur, or Sheep-Cote Clod, comes on December 12, marking the start of the Yule Lads’ journey from their mountain to towns, according to the 1932 poem. They remain until Christmas, when each brother departs one day after Stekkjarstaur, who leaves on Christmas Day.
As was already mentioned, the number, names, and personalities of the Yule Lads are different in earlier versions of the legend. The official list of brothers and their characteristics, compiled by Árnason, is as follows.
The first Yule Lad to come on December 12 and depart on December 25 is Stekkjarstaur. Sheep-Cote Clod is the English version of his name, which is derived from a translation by Hallberg Hallmundsson. He has rigid peg legs and will bother sheep, even stealing milk from them.
The second Yule Lad to arrive on December 13 and depart on December 26 is Giljagaur. Gully Gawk is how one might translate his name into English. He waits for a chance to steal cow milk from barns by hiding in gullies.
Arriving on December 14 and departing on December 27, Stúfur is the third Yule Lad. Stubby is the English equivalent of his name. He will take leftovers from dishes that are left out and consume them. And he’s extremely little.
Arriving on December 15 and departing on December 28, Þvörusleikir is the fourth Yule Lad. His name means “Spoon-Licker” in English, which explains why he does a cunning trick where he steals spoons and licks them. According to Canon, he acts in this way due of malnutrition.
The fifth Yule Lad to come on December 16 and depart on December 29 is Pottaskefill. His name is translated as Pot-Scraper in English. Like the other brothers, this moniker refers to his trick of stealing leftovers from pots.
The sixth Yule Lad to arrive on December 17 and depart on December 30 is Askasleikir. Bowl-Licker is how one would translate his name into English. He’ll lurk beneath beds, waiting for someone to drop their dish of leftover food on the ground so he can take it.
The seventh Yule Lad to arrive on December 18 and depart on December 31 is Hurðaskellir. His name means “door slammer” in English, as he enjoys slamming whatever doors he finds open at night.
The eighth Yule Lad to arrive on December 19 and depart on January 1 is Skyrgámur. Skyr-Gobbler is how his name is spelt in English. Any skyr, or yoghurt, that Skyrgámur visits will be taken by him.
The ninth Yule Lad to arrive on December 20 and depart on January 2 is Bjúgnakrækir. Sausage-Swiper is how his name is transcribed into English. Similar to the brother before him, he will steal sausages from your house because they are his favourite snack.
The tenth Yule Lad to arrive on December 21 and depart on January 3 is Gluggagægir. His name translates to “Window-Peeper” in English. This brother will break in windows of houses in search of items that are simple to steal.
The eleventh Yule Lad, Gáttaþefur, arrives on December 22 and departs on January 4. Doorway-Sniffer is how his name is transcribed into English. With his enormous nose, he sniffs for baked goodies, especially Laufabrauð, or leaf bread, which is Iceland’s version of the Yule Lads’ “Santa cookie.”
The 12th Yule Lad, Ketkrókur, arrives on December 23 and departs on January 5. His name means “Meat-Hook” in English, which sums up his practical joke of stealing meat with a hook.
Lastly, the 13th Yule Lad to arrive on December 24 and depart on January 6 is Kertasníkir. His name means “Candle-Stealer” in English, and he takes children’s candles.
Do the Thirteen Yule Lads Have Companion Animals?
Indeed, they do! Although the Yule Cat and the Yule Lads don’t travel together, they are somewhat related in that they both aim to keep children honest.
During Christmas, the Yule Cat prowls Iceland’s countryside, looking through houses for gifts of scarves or socks. The Smithsonian magazine’s study of Icelandic literature indicates that Icelanders see the Yule Cat as a reminder to kids to behave themselves. The Yule Cat would visit their home to have dinner before devouring the child who didn’t receive a gift of garments if they were “too lazy” to work for socks for Christmas.
Whether the motivation was intended or not, children are inspired to perform another good act when they hear about the Yule Cat: giving out clothing to those in need. In this manner, people who are unable to buy new clothing will avoid having to endure the fate of being the Yule Cat’s second feast.
How Do the 13 Yule Lads Appear in Icelandic Christmas Traditions Today?
The Yule Lads have a variety of contemporary effects on Icelandic Christmas customs.
Between December 12 and Christmas Eve, kids set out their shoes to be gifted with potatoes or other goodies by the Yule Lads.
In a subtle homage to the Yule Cat, Icelanders give food, clothing, and other necessities to the less fortunate.
Though not nearly as serious or terrifying as the original tradition from the seventeenth century, the Yule Lads’ antics (along with the gifts or rotten potatoes) nonetheless serve as a minor form of discipline.
Good or Bad?
Children in Iceland love the largely harmless tale of the 13 wicked brothers who come down the mountain one by one and leave little presents for good-behaving kids. If these kids aren’t aware of their mischievous behaviour, though, they might end up with rotten potatoes in their shoes. These days, the 13 Yule Lads have a lasting impact on Iceland’s half-month-long Christmas celebration, bringing gifts, creating flatbread, and beloved stories.