The 13 mischievous troll brothers of Christmas, called the Yule Lads, have thrilled and terrified Icelandic children for hundreds of years.
Parents used to torment children with such disturbing stories of the Yule Lads that in the 18th century (1746), Danish king Christian VI tried to ban such un-holy tales.
The Yule Lads’ evil mother, Gryla, is said to be a 600-year-old woman who makes stew out of misbehaving children.
Apparently, she never goes hungry.
This dysfunctional family even has an innocently named “Christmas Cat,” a giant feline with the habit of eating children — particularly those not wearing new clothes over the Christian holiday.
These days, the Yule Lads are rehabilitated.
For the 13 nights before Christmas, a new Yule Lad will visit a child’s window placing a small gift in their shoe. Or a rotting potato, depending on the child’s behaviour that day.
(Not to worry, traditionally they bathe once a year ahead of Christmas.)
They even reply to letters addressed to Santa Claus, their colleague abroad. Sometimes, they dress like him.
Today, as the National Museum of Iceland describes, the 13 Yule lads are:
- Sheep-Cote Clod: He tries to suckle yews in farmer’s sheep sheds
- Gully Gawk: He steals foam from buckets of cow milk
- Stubby: He’s short and steals food from frying pans
- Spoon Licker: He licks spoons
- Pot Scraper, aka Pot Licker: He steals unwashed pots and licks them clean
- Bowl Licker: He steals bowls of food from under the bed (back in the old days, Icelanders used to sometimes store bowls of food there – convenient for midnight snacking?)
- Door Slammer: He stomps around and slams doors, keeping everyone awake
- Skyr Gobbler: He eats up all the Icelandic yogurt (skyr)
- Sausage Swiper: He loves stolen sausages
- Window Peeper: He likes to creep outside windows and sometimes steal the stuff he sees inside
- Door Sniffer: He has a huge nose and an insatiable appetite for stolen baked goods
- Meat Hook: He snatches up any meat left out, especially smoked lamb
- Candle Beggar: He steals candles, which used to be sought-after items in Iceland
The Grocery List
Some say that the Yule Lads are the The Huldufólk, or hidden people of Iceland; some say the dirty, exiled children of Eve; others, fallen angels.
The bad old Gyrla was a nightmare figure : three hundred heads, six eyes in each head besides two additional eyes at the back of each neck. She had goat’s horns, and her ears were so long that they reached her shoulders at one end, and the tip of her 300 noses at the other. On each forehead was a tuft of hair, and on each chin a tangled and filthy beard.
Her teeth were like burnt lava.
Bound to each thigh was a sack, in which she used to carry naughty children. Besides this she had 15 tails, and on each tail a hundred bags of skin, every one of which bags would hold 20 children.
The Yule Lads were apparently born out of wedlock and were called the Christmas-men, because of their habit of taking children at Christmas time.
Even just “mischievously” stealing a candle or milk meant that a family could go cold or hungry in the Icelandic winter.
Perhaps the Yule Lads are as the book Icelandic Legends suggests:
“elves and hidden people. They can live in company with none but their own race. They do either good or evil, which they will, but what they do they do thoroughly. They have no bodies as you other mortals, but can take a human form and be seen of men when they wish.”