If you had to describe the standard Christmas fables we Americans believe about Santa Claus, you’d soon realize how peculiar and somewhat creepy ol’ Saint Nick would seem to outsiders. However, the American holiday fairy tale, certainly will have to take the back seat to that of the one children are told in Iceland.
The traditional holiday celebration begins 13 days before Christmas. The 13 brothers begin their yearly trip down from their home in Dimmuborir near the mystical Myvaln wonderland in northern Iceland. They are the offspring of Grýla and Leppalúði.
One story says that Leppalúði had become crippled and bedridden so Grýla travelled around begging to support her husband. During the holiday season, Grýla kidnaps the naughty children. The nice boys and girls are exempt from her threats, but the bad kids had better be careful. The naughty children are lucky to escape the evil troll woman.
The Jólasveinar aren’t nearly as terrible as their mother, but they are rather impish, anyway. As the Yule Lads make their way around the countryside, they appear one by one, starting on December 12th, when Stekkjastaur, the Sheep-Cote Clod arrives first. He’s a sheep-botherer who drinks their milk and rides them sidesaddle.
The next night, Giljagaur sneaks into the land stealing milk from cows.
On the 14th, Stúfur looks for cooking pans so he can eat any leftover tidbits left inside of them.
The 15th of December heralds the arrival of the most impish brother, Þvörusleikir, with his long, pointy tongue he licks every spoon in sight.
Another brother who likes to lick is Pottasleikir, who arrives on the 16th who has a fetish for pots.
The most prolific licker of them all, Askasleikir, seeks out the bowls and licks them clean on the 17th of December.
If you hear a door slam during the night of the 18th, it’s probably because Hurðaskellir, the door slammer has arrived at your house.
Skyrgámur makes his way into homes on the 19th to gobble up the delicacy called Skyr, a type of yoghurt popular in Iceland.
If you have sausages on hand, watch out on December 20th for Bjúgnakrækir who pilfers entire ropes of sausages.
On the 21st, make sure your blinds and curtains are drawn, because the perverse brother Gluggagægir’s reputation is that of a peeping tom.
The one who makes me curious about Icelandic culture is Gáttaþefur the doorway sniffer. His extra large nose helps him locate delicious Laufabrauð, holiday bread, to swipe for himself and his brothers on the 22nd.
Vegetarians can relax on the 23rd because Ketkrókur is only interested in homes where meat is consumed. He uses a nasty meathook to snag various cuts of meat.
Watch out for your fancy candles on Christmas Eve, that’s when Kertasníkir begs for or outright steals candles.
These characters are the most commonly accepted versions of the fable of the Jólasveinar. Some locales and families enjoy variants of these imps in name and misdemeanors. Although, most people believe there are 13 Yule Lads, others think that nine is enough. There are many Icelanders who have tallied some 70 different names for these guys.
On each of the 13 nights, children must place one of their best shoes on the windowsill before bedtime. If the kid has been good all year, he will receive a nice gift. If she’s been naughty, there may be a booby prize, like a rotting potato or lump of coal.
After all the Yule Lads have arrived, they begin to return in their order of appearance on the remaining days of Christmas until January 6th.
Because today is the 24th, I’ve looked up the English translation of the traditional verse attributed to the candle thief, Kertasníkir.
“Thirteenth was Candle Beggar,
– The weather would be cold,
If he was not the last one
On the day of Yule Eve.
He followed the little children,
Who smiled, happy and gay,
And tripped around the house
With their candles.”
Now that you know about the Yule Lads, don’t forget to place your best shoe on the windowsill before you turn in for the night, tonight.