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The Many Horrors of an Icelandic Christmas

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A sculpture of Grýla and her son Yule, Skyrgámur, at Keflavik International Airport

A sculpture of Grýla and her son Yule, Skyrgámur, at Keflavik International Airport

My condolences to the children of Iceland. While many Christmas celebrations around the world are full of the latest in comfort, merriment and unbridled consumerism, for young Icelanders it’s a time of terror, where you’re lucky to escape with your life… or a potato. At least, that seems to be the case according to this fascinatingly spooky folklore.

Let’s start with Grýla, a giant half-troll, half-animal creature who lives in the Dimmuburgir mountains and comes down at Christmas to look for mischievous children to kidnap. When she takes them home, she boils them alive in her cauldron for a piping hot stew for her and her third husband, Leppalúði, that lasts until the following winter. Apparently, Icelandic kids are genuinely terrified of Grýla; Depictions of the ogress can be seen across the country, though sometimes she looks more like a huge, gnarled crone than a wild beast. However, according to the Icelandic legends collected by Jón Arnasen, published in English in 1864, here is a description that indicates why it inspires genuine fear:

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“Grýla had three hundred heads, six eyes in each head, plus two ghastly livid blue eyes at the back of her head. She had the horns of a goat and her ears were so long that on one side they fell down to her shoulders and on the other they joined the tips of her three hundred noses. On each of her foreheads was a tuft of hair, and on each chin was a matted, filthy beard. Her teeth were like burnt lava. To each thing she tied a bag in which she used to carry mischievous children and had, moreover, horse hooves. In addition to all these, she had fifteen tails, and in each tail a hundred skin pouches, each of which held twenty children.”

That means Grýla is picking up as many as 2,000 naughty kids at once, which either indicates she’s a wonderfully efficient kidnapper or Iceland has an unfathomably terrible naughty problem. For the record, Iceland’s official tourism website softens the image of Grýla by saying that she “can only capture children who misbehave, but those who repent must be released”, but I can’t find another source to support this.

Fortunately, Grýla has managed to find love – well, matrimony, at least – on three separate occasions. The first two were named Gustur and Boli; legends vary about whether they were eaten, murdered, or died of old age (and who died in what manner). She is currently married to the troll Leppalúði, who hangs out in her cave while Grýla does all the work of kidnapping and cooking children. But they certainly have chemistry! The couple has 33 children, 13 of whom are collectively known as the “Yule Lads”.

The Yule Lads aren’t killers, thank goodness, but they’re scary. Each of the 13 days leading up to Christmas, one of these brothers goes to people’s homes and does something nasty. According to Iceland Travel, they also have very suggestive names. They are…

1) Clod Sheep Cote (Stekkjastaur)

Arriving on December 12, he found the ewes and drank the milk directly from their udders.

2) Gully Gawk (Giljagaur)

On December 13, old Giljagaur would wait “for a chance to sneak into the stable to slurp the froth of the fresh milk when the milkmaid looks away.” Iceland Travel’s words, not mine.

3) Chunky (Stúfur)

Fortunately, not everyone is milk perverted. Stúfur just wants the leftover frying pans when he comes to town on December 14th.

4) Spoon Licker (Þvörusleikir)

Many of the Yule Lads like to clean dishes by hand. You can probably guess what old Þvörusleikir will do on December 15th.

5) Pot scraper (Pottasleikir)

Ditto, but for December 16th.

6) Bowl Licker (Askasleikir)

These guys may seem benign, but they leave you with troll spit all over the place. Anyway, the bowls are destroyed on December 17th.

7) Closed door (Hurðaskellir)

Your pots and pans are safe on December 18th, when Hurðaskellir appears to knock on doors in the middle of the night.

8) Skyr Gobbler (Skyrgámur)

With the doors closed, the Yule Lads turn their attention to food. On December 19, Skyr Gobbler robs people skyran Icelandic dairy product similar to yogurt.

9) Sausage Swiper (Bjúgnakrækir)

Pretty self-explanatory and yes, it arrives on December 20th. However, he hides in the rafters of his house while waiting to steal those sausages, which seems unnecessarily scary.

10) Window Watcher (Gluggagægir)

Despite the English connotations of the word “peeper”, old Gluggagægir is just looking through windows for things to steal on December 21st.

11) Doorsniffer (Gáttaþefur)

Easily the most disturbing Yule Lad on this list, Gáttaþefur is actually one of the most benign—he stays outside unless he comes to your door and smells Christmas crackers on December 22nd.

12) Meat Hook (Kjetkrókur)

And we’re back to stealing meat! On 23 December, Gáttaþefur goes to his tower and sticks a hook down his chimney, hoping to catch any meat hanging from the rafters or cooking over the fire.

13) Sailing Beggar (Kertasníkir)

Finally, Christmas Eve sees the arrival of Kertasníkir, who, strangely enough, wants to take some of the candles away.

Despite their particular fetishes, the Yule Lads will leave a small gift for children who leave their shoes on the windowsill – if they’re any good. If they’ve been naughty, they get a rotten potato, though they’ll likely be killed and eaten by Grýla before they have a chance to find her.

But Grýla isn’t the only killer stalking Iceland at Christmas. Grýla has a cat named Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, who is black as night and towers over the houses, and has a unique appetite. It is said that he walks around town and eats anyone – not just children – who doesn’t get an item of clothing for Christmas. While the folklore of the Yule Cat dates back centuries, it was made famous in Iceland in 1932 by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, who wrote a poem about it. This was later turned into music, which was even later recorded by Icelandic pop star Bjork. Here is part of what appears to be the most popular, albeit quite literal, translation of the poem on the internet:

If someone outside heard a faint “meow”

Then bad luck would surely happen

Everyone knew he hunted men

And I didn’t want rats

He followed the poorest people

Who didn’t get any new clothes

Close to Christmas – and I tried and lived

in the worst conditions

From them he took at the same time

All your Christmas food

And ate them too

if he could

So the women competed

To sway and sow and spin

And colorful knitted clothes

Or a little sock

Brutal, huh? Well, the silver lining is that the Christmas Cat isn’t just a ruthless killer of the poor, but a grim reminder to give to those in need… lest they get murdered by a cat. The poem continues:

If she still exists I don’t know

But for nothing would be your trip

If everyone had next Christmas

some new cloth

You might want to keep this in mind.

To help if needed

‘Cause somewhere there might be children

Who doesn’t win anything

Maybe that look for those who suffer

From the lack of abundant lights

Will give you a happy season

and merry christmas

Merry Christmas everyone! And sorry, Iceland.

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