Like our food, language and landscapes, Icelandic Christmas folklore is a bit extreme.
Instead of getting a visit from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, Iceland has the 13 Yule Lads (Jólasveinar) who in mid-December start descending one by one from their mountain home to wreak mischief in the nights leading up to Christmas (Jól). The Yule Lads are said to be the sons of the hideous trolls Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Grýla is especially horrible as she has an appetite for the flesh of naughty children, who she likes to put into a large pot and make into stew.
While the original Yule Lads were pranksters who went about stealing food and causing havoc, in modern times they have become the Icelandic version of Santa Claus, leaving children daily gifts.
Every night, starting on December 12th, one Yule Lad will visit the home of every child, placing a toy or a piece of candy into shoes that children leave on their window sills…that is, as long as you were well behaved that day! Since if you misbehaved that day, the Yule Lads are not subtle in expressing their disapproval, and they’ll fill your shoe with rotting potatoes.
Stekkjastaur – Sheep Cote Clod
The first Yule Lad, Sheep-Cote Clod, comes to town on December 12th. He used to try to suckle the yews in the farmers’ sheep sheds, which was hard for him since his legs are stiff as wood.
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk
Next in line is Gully Gawk. He gets his name from the fact that he likes to hide in gullies for a chance to sneak into the barn to slurp the foam off the fresh milk when the farmer looks away.
Stúfur – Stubby
Stubby is the smallest of his brothers and uses his vertically challenged stature to hide and snatch bits of food left over from the frying pan. That’s why he’s also sometimes known as Pan Scraper.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon Licker
Spoon Licker likes to sneak into houses and lick the wooden spoon used to scrape the pots and pans with. Unfortunately this poor diet has led to malnutrition and his very gaunt appearance.
Pottaskefill – Pot Scraper
Pot Scraper likes to sneak into houses (much like his brothers) and snatch away pots that have not been washed yet so he can lick the food remains from the insides of the pots. Doesn’t exactly sound very appetizing or hygienic for that matter.
Askasleikir – Bowl Licker
In the past, Icelanders ate from wooden bowls with a hinged-lid that were sometimes kept under the bed after a night snack. Bowl Licker likes to hide under the bed, and when someone puts their bowl on the floor he’ll grab it and lick it clean.
Hurðaskellir – Door Slammer
On December 18th there’s no more peace and quiet to be had, since that’s when Door Slammer arrives. He likes to make a lot of noise and his favorite activity is slamming doors, making sure no one in the household gets a solid night sleep.
Skyrgámur – Skyr Gobbler
Skyr Gobbler makes his way down from the mountains on the 19th. He is obsessed with skyr, an Icelandic dairy product similar to yogurt. He likes it so much that he’ll sneak into the pantry and eat all the skyr until he howls with indigestion.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper
December 20th marks the appearance of Sausage Swiper. As you might have guessed from his name, he’s a big fan of sausages and will sit up in rafters waiting for the perfect opportunity to snatch a few.
Gluggagægir – Window Peeper
December 21st is when Window Peeper visits. While not as greedy as some of his brothers, Window Peeper can still give you a fright. He likes to peep through the windows in search of something to steal.
Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer
Door Sniffer comes to town on December 22nd. You can spot him from miles away due to his huge nose. The smell of Christmas cookies and traditional Icelandic ‘leaf bread’ is what attracts him to your doorway and while you’re not looking, he’ll attempt to steal some.
Ketkrókur – Meat Hook
Second to last is Meat Hook and he arrives on December 23rd. Meat Hook is crazy about meat. He’ll climb up to your roof and lower a long hook through the chimney to try and snag a smoked leg of lamb hanging from the rafters, or a piece of smoked lamb from the pot.
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar
The last of the brothers is Candle Beggar who arrives on Christmas Eve. In the old days, candles were the brightest lights available to people in Iceland and were made of tallow. While Icelandic children longed to have their very own candle for Christmas, Candle Beggar just wanted a candle of his own to take a bite out of.
After Christmas the Yule Lads return back to their mountain home, one by one, in the same order as they arrived to town until the last one, Kertasníkir, leaves on the last day of Christmas, January 6th.