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The Yule Lads of Iceland

Because I’ve been “collecting” dates for several decades, I was already familiar with Iceland’s peculiar tradition of the Yule Lads (sometimes referred to as Yuletide Lads) and have been listing them on my daily calendar for many years. Essentially it’s an ancient tradition in their folklore that for thirteen days in the lead up to Christmas, beginning on December 12, a different Yule Lad appears each day with his own story and brand of mischief that he gets up to while he’s visiting, and then they leave, again one per day, in the thirteen days following Christmas. But after visiting Iceland earlier this year, I decided to do my part to make them more widely known, because they’re an awfully cool and fun tradition that more people should know about and celebrate.

Origins of the Yule Lads

So who are the Yule Lads, and where did they originate? According to Wikipedia, “[t]he first mention of the Yule Lads can be found in the 17th-century Poem of Grýla. Grýla had appeared in older tales as a troll but had not been linked to Christmas before. She is described as a hideous being who is the mother of the gigantic Yule Lads, a menace to children.”

“In the late 18th century, a poem mentions 13 of them. In the mid-19th century, author Jón Árnason drew inspiration from the Brothers Grimm and began collecting folktales. His 1862 collection is the first mention of the names of the Yule Lads. In 1932, the poem “Yule Lads” was published as a part of the popular poetry book Christmas is Coming (Jólin koma) by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum. The poem was popular and established what is now considered the canonical 13 Yule Lads, their names, and their personalities.”

The lads themselves were the offspring of two giants, Grýla and Leppalúði.

Grýla is an ogress, first mentioned in 13th-century texts such as Íslendinga saga and Sverris saga, but not explicitly connected with Christmas until the 17th century. She is enormous, and her appearance is repulsive.

The oldest poems about Grýla describe her as a parasitic beggar. She walks around asking parents to give her their disobedient children. Her plans can be thwarted by giving her food or chasing her away. Originally, she lived in a small cottage, but in later poems, she appears to have been forced out of town and into a remote cave.

Current-day Grýla can detect children who are misbehaving year-round. She comes from the mountains during Christmas time to search nearby towns for her meal. She leaves her cave, hunts children, and carries them home in her giant sack. She devours children as her favourite snack. Her favorite dish is a stew of naughty kids, for which she has an insatiable appetite. According to legend, there is never a shortage of food for Grýla.

According to folklore, Grýla has been married three times. Her third husband Leppalúði is said to be living with her in their cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields, with the big black Yule Cat and their sons. Leppalúði is lazy and mostly stays at home in their cave. Grýla supposedly has dozens of children with her previous husbands, but they are rarely mentioned nowadays.

The Yule Cat

Naturall, Grýla and Leppalúði, and the Yule Lads have a family pet, Jólakötturinn — or simply The Yule Cat, who similarly terrorizes unruly children, especially ones without any new clothing.

The Yule cat (Icelandic: Jólakötturinn, also called Jólaköttur and Christmas cat) is a huge and vicious cat from Icelandic Christmas folklore that is said to lurk in the snowy countryside during the Christmas season and eat people that do not receive any new clothing to wear before Christmas Eve. In other versions of the story, the cat just eats the food of people without new clothes. Jólakötturinn is closely associated with other figures from Icelandic folklore, as the house pet of the ogress Grýla and her sons, the Yule Lads.

The Popular Poem

While the idea of the Yule Lads in Icelandic folklore has been around for centuries, what cemented it into modern Iceland’s culture was a poem written in 1932 by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, who “was an Icelandic author/poet and a member of parliament. The poem was included in collection of poetry for children called Jólin Koma (which essentially means “Christmas is Coming”) and is titled “The Yules Lads.” It remains very popular to this day. Before this poem was published , the Yule Lads differed from story to story, but this poem had the effect of fixing the thirteen Yule Lads and their story into the one that’s agreed upon today. Here’s the introduction:

Let me tell the story
of the lads of few charms,
who once upon a time
used to visit our farms.

Thirteen altogether,
these gents in their prime
didn´t want to irk people
all at one time.

They came from the mountains,
as many of you know,
in a long single file
to the farmsteads below.

Creeping up, all stealth,
they unlocked the door.
The kitchen and the pantry
they came looking for.

Grýla was their mother –
she gave them ogre milk –
and the father Leppalúdi;
a loathsome ilk.

They hid where they could, with a cunning look or sneer,
ready with their pranks
when people weren´t near.

They were called the Yuletide lads
– at Yuletide they were due –
and always came one by one,
not ever two by two.

And even when they were seen,
they weren´t loath to roam and play their tricks – disturbing
the peace of the home.

The poem continues by detailing each of Grýla and Leppalúði’s thirteen children, who arrive — one each day — beginning on December 12, with the last one arriving on Christmas Eve, December 24. Then beginning on Christmas Day, they begin to leave — again one each day — which takes until January 6 until the final one leaves.

They used to me a lot more violent, in the way most fairy and folktales were originally, but the modern Yule Lads, and the Yule Cat, are more mischievous and pull pranks rather than do actual harm. As such, they’ve become a pretty fun tradition in Iceland, and the wider world. Does this have anything to do with beer? Not really, although there is a tenuous connection with one of the Lads. But it’s enough for me to have some fun with it, and so I will be sharing each of the thirteen Yule Lads beginning today and continuing until the last one’s arrival on December 24. Enjoy.

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