Icelandic Christmas Trolls – The Yule Lads

The Yuletide-lads, Yule Lads, or Yulemen (Icelandic: jólasveinarnir or jólasveinar), are figures from Icelandic folklore, portrayed as being mischievous pranksters, but who have in modern times also been depicted as taking on a more benevolent role similar to Santa Claus (Father Christmas).

Their number has varied over time, but currently there are considered to be thirteen. They put rewards or punishments into shoes placed by children on window sills during the last thirteen nights before Yule (Christmas). Every night, one Yuletide lad visits each child, leaving gifts or rotting potatoes, depending on the child’s behaviour throughout the year.

The Yuletide-lads originate from Icelandic folklore. Early on their number and depictions varied greatly depending on location, with each individual Lad ranging from a mere prankster to a homicidal monster who eats children.

In 1932, the poem “Jólasveinarnir” was published as a part of the popular poetry book Jólin Koma (“Christmas Is Coming”) by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum. The poem reintroduced Icelandic society to Icelandic Yuletide folklore and established what is now considered the canonical thirteen Yuletide-lads, their personalities and connection to other folkloric characters.

The Yuletide-lads are portrayed as being mischievous, or even criminal, pranksters who sometimes steal from, or otherwise harass the population, and all have descriptive names that convey their modus operandi.

In modern times the Yuletide-lads have been depicted as also taking on a more benevolent role comparable to Santa Claus and other related figures. They are generally depicted as wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing, but are sometimes shown wearing the costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus (see images below), especially at at children’s events.

The Yuletide-lads are said to be the sons of the mountain-dwelling trolls Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Grýla is big and scary, with an appetite for the flesh of mischievous children, whom she is sometimes depicted to put in a large pot and make into stew. Grýla is said to trek from the mountains to scare Icelandic children who misbehaved before Christmas. Her husband is smaller and weaker, and mostly stays at home in his cave, lazy and mindless. They are depicted with the Yule Cat, a beast that, according to folklore, eats children who do not receive new clothes for Christmas.

Children posing for a photograph in Grýla’s pot.

The Yuletide-lads are said to “come to town” during the last 13 nights before Christmas. Below are the ‘official’ thirteen Yuletide-lads in the order they arrive (and depart).

Names in English are based on Hallberg Hallmundsson’s translation of the poem.

Icelandic name English translation Description Arrival Departure
Stekkjarstaur (Sheep-Cote Clod) Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.

12 December 25 December
Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.

13 December 26 December
Stúfur (Stubby) Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.

14 December 27 December
Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker) Steals Þvörur (a type of a wooden spoon with a long handle – I. þvara) to lick. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.

15 December 28 December
Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper) Steals leftovers from pots.

16 December 29 December
Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker) Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.

17 December 30 December
Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer) Likes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.

18 December 31 December
Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler) A Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr.

Skyrgámur eating Skyr, a type of Yogurt.

19 December 1 January
Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper) Hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.

20 December 2 January
Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper) A snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.

21 December 3 January
Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer) Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð.

22 December 4 January
Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) Uses a hook to steal meat.

23 December 5 January
Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer) Follows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).

24 December 6 January

References

Gleðileg jól! – Happy Christmas!

6 thoughts on “Icelandic Christmas Trolls – The Yule Lads”

  1. It’s fascinating how the basic idea of a good person rewarding well behaved children with gifts, and leaving or doing something nasty to poorly behaved children, vary so much from country to country. Some of these seem quite extreme though! Fascinating read Rich!

    1. Some of it is quite terrifying Andy! But the general premise of a reward for being good and (at least the threat of) punishment for being bad, seems to be a general thread across all cultures during festivals, observance days or holidays.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s