One of my favorite things about traveling is learning about the traditions that other cultures have. You can’t talk about traditions without thinking of the holidays. And I was so charmed by the story of the Icelandic Christmas Yule lads that I thought I would take a minute to share them with you.
I have a funny tradition of my own when I travel. I like to find a children’s book from that country. Not just a translation of a store I know but a book the kids there grow up reading. The stories are fun and they teach you something about the culture of that place.
This started out of a different tradition I have. It is actually a baby shower idea that I took to a whole new level. I find children’s books to be so cute and fun. The good ones always make me laugh and I think we all need that more in our lives. So I began a tradition of buying a children’s book for friends and family instead of a birthday card. I hate that cards just get tossed and they just don’t feel as personal. I love to see the person laugh when they inevitably read it upon receipt.
When I went to Iceland, my first “grown-up” trip, as in one that didn’t have one of the parents along, I found myself perusing the children’s books with a couple of birthdays in mind back home. A friendly clerk chimed in telling me which books were popular and then told me about a couple of the books that all the Icelandic kids read growing up. I loved it and the tradition was born.
The book I got in Iceland was about the 13 Yule Lads of Christmas. The story dates back centuries though it has evolved over time. They are first mentioned in a poem about Grýla in the 17th century, then in another in the 18th century. They were first mentioned by name in 1862. In 1932 the poem was published in a Christmas poetry book called “Christmas is coming”.
Who are the Yule Lads?
The Yule lads are 13 men… trolls… part trolls? Anyway. They were all born the same night to Grýla, their old troll hag mother, and Leppalúði, their lazy father. They all live in a dark, damp cave in the middle of the highlands somewhere with their huge, scraggly pet with an appetite for naughty children known as the Christmas Cat. Grýla is a strict mother, never letting the boys out except once a year around their birthday to visit the town.
It should be noted that these lads are pranksters and thieves. In the origins of the tale, the trolls would eat naughty children. This threat was supposed to make sure kids behaved around this time of year. It was decided that this was a bit harsh so the tale began to evolve a bit. They no longer eat children (the same can not be said about the Christmas Cat, however, so be on your best behavior!) and they actually bring them gifts! Children place their shoes in the windowsill and the trolls bring small gifts. If a child is naughty though, the get a potato. Children are encouraged to leave the treats to encourage them to visit them, this probably started to deter them from eating the children
Each night starting on the 12th a troll comes down to visit the children.
The 13 Yule lads of Christmas
December 12th- Stekkjarstaur
The sheep warrior or Sheep-Cote Clod is the older and therefore the first to go. He is known for harassing the sheep and for his old creepy legs that make it difficult for him.
December 13th- Giljagaur
Or Gully Gawk, this guy loves milk and is known for breaking into the cowshed to steal it. He is the biggest and the tallest so he travels by ravines and gullies. He is also the caretaker for the Christmas Cat, who he affectionately calls Tiddles.
December 14th- Stúfur
Or Stubby. The shortest of the brothers, best to leave a chair by the window for him to ensure he can reach the windowsill. He is also known as pan scraper because he loves to scrape pans for the leftover bits.
December 15th- Þvörusleikir
Spoon Licker. As his name implies, he enjoys licking spoons. It used to be limited to the wooded ones use for stirring the pot but has since moved on to spoons of any type. Stickier the better.
December 16th- Pottasleikir
Pot Licker because he loves to lick pans for the leftover bits. He has a long and dextrous tongue that makes him quite good at it too.
December 17th- Askasleikir
This is Bowl Licker. He loves to lick bowls. More specifically he likes to lick askur, a wooden bowl that the Icelanders would make that had a hinged lid, they often placed them under beds or on the floor when done eating out of them so he will wait to goggle what remains. Askurs are not so easily found now so other bowls or skyr tubs do him fine.
December 18th- Hurðaskellir
Door Slammer. This guy loves all things doors, especially the sound they make when they slam. Of course, Grýla won’t allow this at home so when he comes to visit he is sure to get his fill!
December 19th- Skyrgámur
Skyr Glutton. (if I was a Yule Lad this would be me!!) He loves skyr so much (like yogurt, if you haven’t heard of it before) that he will come in and eat it till he is so full it hurts!
December 20th- Bjúgnakrækir
Sausage stealer, of course, steals sausages. It is said that Grýla didn’t make the best sausage so whenever Bjúgnakrækir comes to town he takes all the sausage he can get his hands on.
December 21st- Gluggagægir
Window Peeper is a nosy lad who can be found peeping in windows. Mostly he is curious and just looking but he has been known to take things he finds especially interesting.
December 22nd- Gáttaþefur
Door sniffer has a large and highly sensitive nose. He is always sniffing out a tasty treat. However this sensitivity comes with a downside, bad smells are also quite strong so make sure your house smells good if you want this lad to visit.
December 23th- Ketkrókur
Meat hook uses his hook to steal meat. In the old days, he would do this from the chimneys of the turf houses grabbing lamb hanging from the rafters or even from the pot.
December 24th- Kertasníkir
Last but certainly not least is Candle Beggar. It is dark much of the time in winter in Iceland, when there was no electricity candles were the brightest light. Kertasníkir not only wants a candle of his own but he is also known to take a bite out of them too! The candles in Iceland used to be made out of tallow which was far tastier then modern-day candles, but he still nibbles them in search of a tallow candle.
There you have it. A little Icelandic tradition to share with your family this year.
Be sure to leave your shoes in the window and hope you don’t get a potato!
If you were a Yule Lad which one do you think you would be? Let’s talk in the comments!
Interested in hearing more or sharing this with the kids? Here is a cute story about the Yule Lads.
Gleðileg jól! (Happy Christmas!)