Going to Iceland a few weeks before Christmas is one of the most magical things I’ve ever done. (Despite the complete lack of snow. Thanks, global warming.)
It turns out Reykjavík is delightful and weird, and delightfully weird. One thing I noticed almost immediately was the presence of moving graphics projected onto the walls of buildings when it was dark outside (which, in December in Iceland, is about 20 hours a day).
When I finally asked an Icelander about them, he replied that those were the Santas.
Yes, Santas. Plural.
Iceland does, in fact, have 13 Santas. They’re trolls, actually, who come down from the mountains in December. And they all bring presents for the kids. All 13 of them!
They’re called the “Yule Lads,” but in modern times, this traditional folklore has mixed with the Christmas practice of the jolly red guy and is now commonly referred to as the “13 Santas.”
Before I introduce you to the lads, you need to meet their mother, Grýla, who’s favorite delicacy is children.
Yes, you read that right. At the heart of Iceland’s jolliest season of the year is a troll woman who gathers disobedient children and cooks them in a stew.
As one shop owner explained to us, “Well, she used to eat children, but then we got psychology, and we had to stop saying that. Now she just puts them in her bag and takes them away.”
Oh, that’s soooo much better.
To make matters worse, Grýla has a pet cat (called Jólaköttur) who eats children who don’t receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas.
Do you see a theme here? Icelanders are frighteningly fixated on eating children.
But I digress.
If you think all of the above is weird, wait til you get a load of the Yule Lads’ names: (my favorites appear in red)
- Sheep Worrier (Stekkjastaur) harasses the sheep but finds it hard to walk due to his two peg legs. (Which begs the unanswered question: How did he get down from the mountains?!)
- Gully Gawk (Giljagaur) hides in gullies to wait til the barn clears out so he can steal milk.
- Stubby (Stúfur) is just short. Kinda boring.
- Spoon Licker (Þvörusleikir) is one of my favorites. He steals spoons to lick.
- Pot Licker (Pottaskefill) steals your leftovers from pots.
- Bowl Licker (Askasleikir) … I think you see where this is going.
- Door Slammer (Hurðaskellir) slams doors in the night “to give you a fright,” according to that same garrulous shopkeep I talked to.
- Skyr Skimmer (Skyrgámur) loves skyr, which is an Icelandic dairy product like yogurt.
- Sausage Swiper (Bjúgnakrækir) hides in the rafters and steals your sausages.
- Window Peeper (Gluggagægir) is another favorite of mine, because how creepy is this?! He looks through your window to find things (or food) to steal.
- Door Sniffer (Gáttaþefur) is a class act, too. With his abnormally large nose, he sniffs at your door to find out when you’re cooking.
- Meat Hook (Ketkrókur) uses a hook to steal meat.
- Candle Stealer (Kertasníkir) follows kids to steal their candles (which were edible back in the old days).
So how does it work with so many Santas? The first Yule Lad comes on Dec. 12, and one follows each day thereafter, until Dec. 24. Children leave their shoes on their windowsill each night, and a small present is left in them—if the child is good.
If an Icelandic child misbehaves, he or she doesn’t receive coal, but instead … a potato!
I don’t see that as a punishment, but as my favorite shopkeep told me, “As a result, many Icelandic children do not like the potato.”
Potato or not, each Yule Lad stays exactly 13 days. The first leaves on Christmas Day, and the exodus continues each day after. It really prolongs the holiday season!
So, what do you guys think of this Christmas tradition? I think, had 10-year-old me been raised in Iceland, she would have been terrified of Christmas! (And cats.)