Unless you were born in Iceland or spent a holiday season in this island near the Arctic Circle you would not have experienced the unique traditions and beliefs surrounding Christmas in Iceland.
While children around the world believe in Santa Claus, who by the way is referred to as the Coca Cola Santa Claus here, Icelandic children believe in the Yule Lads, Gryla and the Christmas Cat. Rather than being visited by only one Santa children in Iceland are visited by 13 Santa’s called Yule Lads, one by one every night starting 13 nights before Christmas. Children place a shoe on the window sill in their bedroom and if they were good the Yule Lads will leave a present in the shoe and if they were bad he will leave them a potato. These 13 Yule Lads are all brothers and sons of Gryla, they are trolls portrayed as a dysfunctional family who all live together in a dark and damp cave in the middle of the highlands of Iceland. Their pet is an over-grown cat with sharp teeth who will eat children if their parents don’t give them a new piece of clothing or outfit during Christmas, a brilliant way to get children to appreciate clothes and not only toys as presents.
The first to arrive on the night of December 12th is Stekkjarstaur – the Sheep Worrier, he got his name from trying to suckle on sheep when visiting farmhouses back in the day to quench his thirst from his long walk through the country. These days he has to settle for cow’s milk rather than sheep’s milk from modern kitchens. Children leave him a glass of milk which makes things easier for him now days.
The second to visit on December 13th is Giljagaur – Gully Gawk, the biggest, tallest and strongest of the Yule Lads. He also loves milk but prefers cows milk, especially the creamy froth from the top of fresh warm milk. I wonder if children warm and froth milk for him?
The third on December 14th is Stúfur – Stubby, the smallest of the yule lads, his short legs make walking in soft snow a nightmare for him. Children usually leave a stool for him to be able to reach their shoe in the window sill.
The fourth on December 15th is Pvörusleikir – Spoon Licker, as a child he was always sucking his thumb, so he turned his attention to spoons which is how he got his name. It is a good day for baking a cake or cookies and not washing the spoon but leaving it on the window sill next to the shoe.
The fifth on December 16th is Pottasleikir – Pot Licker, quick-witted and single-minded his preference of course is licking pots clean, so that evening pots and pans are left unwashed.
The sixth on December 17th is Askasleikir – Bowl Licker, the last of the lickers, he liked licking askur, or traditional wooden bowl with a hinged lid used to keep the food warm and protect it from household pets. He has not been himself since askurs have stopped being used, he doesn’t know what to make of new plates but nevertheless he still licks them so it’s a good excuse on this day not to do the dishes.
The seventh on December 18th is Hurdaskellir – Door Slammer, this loud and boisterous lad is said to be a frustrated percussionist, he will slam the door when he leaves just for the fun of waking up everyone in the house.
The eighth on December 19th is Skyrgámur – Skyr Glutton, Skyr is an Icelandic dairy product, like greek yogurt but better! So now you know what he likes and how he got his name.
The ninth on December 20th is Bjúgnakraekir – Sausage Stealer, Bjúga is a type of sausage he finds irresistible, in olden times they were large sausages six times the size of todays hot dog. He has adjusted to these vacuum packed hot dogs so children make sure there are plenty for him at home that night.
The tenth on December 21st is Gluggagaegir – Window Peeper, he likes peeping in windows in the chance that a child sees him he will make funny faces in the hope of scaring them. So parents usually close the curtains if they have really small children.
The eleventh on December 22nd is Gáttapefur – Door Sniffer, when his big nose gets a whiff of all the delicacies being prepared during these days of Christmas, he is guided by his highly developed sense of smell towards kitchen doors. His favorite is laufabraud, or leaf bread, a flour and water based dough, flattened into thin pancake like circles on which very intricate designs are made by cutting out pieces and then deep-fried, making a crispy and sweet cookie like treat.
The twelfth on December 23rd is Ketkrókur – Meat Hook, he is a big, self-confident carnivorous lad. Smoked leg of land is believed to be his favorite.
The thirteenth (and last) on December 24th is Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar, before the advent of electricity candles were made of tallow (animal fat) which is what Candle Beggar seamed to have a liking for. These days he can’t eat the candles any more but still enjoys collecting them so children leave one for him to take.