The Icelandic Christmas Lads

Two of the Icelandic Yule Lads

Two of the Yule lads pictured on a billboard in Dimmuborgir, Iceland
Two of the Yule lads pictured on a billboard in Dimmuborgir, Iceland | Source

A Pagan Past

The origins of Iceland's Christmas Lads are lost in the mists of a Pagan past and in the details of the ancient mid-winter Norse solstice festival which marked the end of winter darkening, and celebrated the gradual return of the sun. This celebration,(from which we get the English word Yule) involved trees, and bonfires, feasting and fellowship and, in some form, was common to the ancient Celts and Norse throughout northern and western Europe.

Christianity came late to Iceland (not until the year 1000) and when it came, it simply superimposed itself peacefully onto the old pagan practices of the Viking world. The heathen Yule ( or Jól in Icelandic) simply blended into Christmas,and many heathen practices were incorporated into the Christian holiday. Since Iceland was so isolated from the rest of Europe for so long, ancient customs which have long disappeared elsewhere, survived there..

For example, the world may have Santa Claus, but Iceland has 13 Christmas lads(jólasveinar) who predate Santa by centuries. These are not jolly elves or sprites-- oh no. these guys are the sons of a child-eating monster called Gryla and her lazy ogre-husband Leppalúði. They live in Iceland's mountainous interior with their parents most of the year, and only descend into towns and farms during the Yuletide season.. They come down from the mountains, one by one, from December 12th until Christmas.

Yule lad figurines by Brian Pilkington.
Yule lad figurines by Brian Pilkington. | Source

Originally, they were a pretty rough bunch, snatching naughty children and taking them off to be eaten by their monstrous mother. By the 19th century, however, the Jolasveinar had been tamed. They morphed into today's jolly Christmas elves who happily leave a little gift in children's shoes placed expectantly on windowsills every night of Christmas, starting on December 12th, .

The lads go back up the mountains the way they came-- one each day in the reverse order of their arrival. The first one departs on Christmas day, with the last one leaving on January 6th ( Twelfth Night, Epiphany or in Icelandic, Þrettándinn.) which marks the end of the Christmas season. Bonfires and celebrations accompany the departure of the last Christmas Lad and Christmas is over until next year.

The names of the boys tell the kind of mischief they traditionally get up to. They have names like potlicker, candle begger, and doorway sniffer ( sounds a little weird to me). My all-time personal favorite is " door-slammer" who traditionally appears on December 18th. I've been known to slam a door or two myself, so I identify with the guy. I can just imagine the wind blowing through a turf-roofed farmhouse and causing the door to slam. Kind of comforting in the dark and the cold to think it is the work of door slammer rather than the wind.

On the other hand, " window peeper" sounds like a bit of a perve, and not very comforting at all.

The Icelandic Christmas Cat

Source

The Christmas Cat

Along with the 13 Christmas Lads, there is another important Christmas character who must be mentioned. The Christmas Cat. This fearsome feline had an important role to play in centuries past and still lives on in today's Icelandic Christmas traditions.

From the earliest days of the Norse settlement in Iceland, Winter was the time of year when wool was spun and new clothes were made and it was traditional for everyone to have new clothes for Christmas. In fact, traditionally, any child who did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas risked being eaten by the dreaded Christmas cat. The Icelandic Christmas cat is no sweet kitteh-- no no-- a dangerous child noshing monster is the Icelandic Christmas cat. Its origins are murky, but again, predate Christianity. Some say it is the house cat of Gryla but everyone agrees that this is one mean feline and that any person who dares not to have at least one new item of clothing at Christmas, risks being gobbled up alive by the Christmas cat. No wonder that to this day, it is de rigeur to have at least one new piece of clothing for Christmas in Iceland. And I''m thinking that back in the old days, when life was hard, the story of the Christmas cat made it possible for people who had enough to give charity to those who had little without injuring their pride.... After all, Iceland in winter is not a place where you are going to survive without hats and mittens in winter. The Christmas Cat must have made it easier to give and to accept charitable offers of clothing during the holiday season.

A Song About the Christmas Cat by Bjork

Today's Tamer Christmas Lads

These days, the Christmas Lads have taken a page from Santa's book. In fact, they co-exist very nicely with Santa in shops and malls and are all kinds of jolly, but there is a kind of dark edge to their past. It was not so many generations ago that life on top of the world was not easy. They have a pedigree that predates the plastic materialism and Victorian sentimentality of Santa and even with the glitz and glamor of the modern day, it shines through.

They date back to a time when things were simple but not easy and when ogres and trolls went abroad on dark nights and people clung to their neighbors and their gods to get through the winter.

Personally, I'll take skyr grabber and window peeper any day over Donner and Blitzen and, oh yes--I am particularly partial to " Door Slammer."

Meet the Yule Lads

More by this Author


Comments 30 comments

Uninvited Writer profile image

Uninvited Writer 5 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

This was great. I love learning about Christmas traditions around the world.


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks UW-- wow you were fast. I just published it LOL and I love your Christmas avatar. I think I'll have to get one myself. ho ho ho:-)


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 5 years ago from Bend, Oregon

OMG - it must be scary to grow up in Iceland during the Christmas season... you could be eaten by a Christmas lad or the Christmas cat! LOL!!

But seriously, what an amazing, interesting hub on Christmas customs in Iceland. You are a wealth of information on that country.

Merry Christmas and ho, ho, ho!


Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir 5 years ago

Thank you from Iceland Roberta!

We love our "jólasveinar" even if they are a naughty bunch. When I was a kid I was sure that the "jólaköttur" (Christmas cat) lived in an old deserted army barrac close to my home. I guess my mom wanted us to believe that so we wouldn't go there...


Raven King profile image

Raven King 5 years ago from Cabin Fever

What a delightful hub! My name would be Bowl Licker since I like raw cookie dough...shhh...don't tell anyone. :)


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hi Steph-- well strictly speaking it was the lads mother, Gryla, who did the child eating-- but I understand parents used the threat of being devoured as a disciplinary tool and still do-- I think kids are still afraid of the Christmas cat, but I can't swear to it. Compared to getting eaten, having a lump of coal put in you stocking is nothing eh?

an hello Jóhanna. I love your "jólasveinar" too. Santa seems insipid next to them and I bet you and your pals went and explored that old barracks anyway. Thanks for stopping by and commenting-- Iam honored:-)


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hello Raven-- nice to see you and thanks for stopping by-- your secret is safe with me, bowl licker:-))))))


Frieda Babbley profile image

Frieda Babbley 5 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

Fascinating stuff! Nice touch with the Bjork vid. Sharing this one. But I'm NOT sharing which naughty boy I take after.


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Glad you liked it Frieda and you can have anyone but Doorslammer-- he's MINE :-)


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

robie, you know I have a fondness for this ancient island's "underworld" inhabited by mystical beings feared or adored by Icelanders. Why have I never heard of (until now) its Christmas Lads or the Christmas Cat? The Lads' appearance and disappearance marking the days until Christmas and the twelve days after makes much more sense than the "season" beginning on Dec 1 and ending on the 26th.

The Christmas Cat, however, is in some ways the Icelandic version of "Santa making a list" - i.e. children who've been "bad" won't get presents. Instilling terror in children during what's supposed to be a joyful time sounds rather barbaric, IMHO.

At any rate, a great hub! 'D


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

HI Jama-- glad you like the hub. You are a budding Icelandophile I see :-) The Christmas cat is one of those wonderful folk images that remind one of how tough and unforgiving life was everywhere in Europe during the Middle Ages. So far as I know it is unique to Iceland and I do find it fascinating.


SteveoMc profile image

SteveoMc 5 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

Love the interesting holiday customs from around the world. Especially love the idea of snatching and eating the naughty children. I think we should adopt that tradition immediately. LOL


nikitha p profile image

nikitha p 5 years ago from India

Great hub! thanks for sharing this.


alekhouse profile image

alekhouse 5 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

What a truly interesting and informative hub. I love the Bjork video...talk about unique!!


KsCharles 5 years ago

What an interesting, intrigueing blog...You constantly amaze me with your wide-range of subject matter and the knowledge and insights you bring to us!


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Hoho Steevo-- I totally agree and am your newest follower on Hubpages:-)

nikitha, alekhouse, and KsCharles I am so glad you enjoyed this. Iceland is truly a unique and fascinating place with a wonderfully ancient culture and language-- Icelanders truly are the last vestige of the Vikings.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

Iceland's Christmas lads sound like a scary group. I love hearing about other countries traditions. Great job. Voted up.


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

ahhh KKGals-- thanks for the thumbs up and for stopping by with that fabulous avatar of my favorite morning drink:-))))


Íris 5 years ago

one of the reasons behind Jólakötturinn (christmas cat) was to make sure that everybody got something new and warm in a time when there were still incredibly poor people here in Iceland, so the dirt poor workers of the farms would receive a woollen sweater, socks or mittens under the guise of saving them from being eaten by the beast :)

gleðileg jól from Iceland


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thank you Iris, for mentioning that-- it is a point well taken. The Christmas cat definitely was a tactful face saver as, I am told were many of the trolls and spirits and especially the hidden people. I am told that in the old days, when a family was on the verge of starvation and a jug of milk or a fish turned up on the doorstep, it was said to be a gift from the hidden people not help from the neighbors. I've always thought that was a very practical and kind way of doing things. It is a quality I have always admired in traditional Icelandic culture

Thanks for your comment and Merry Christmas from America:-)


LondonGirl profile image

LondonGirl 5 years ago from London

A fascinating hub! I love the idea of the Christmas cat. Perhaps I should mention him to my darling son.....


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

glad you liked it London Girl-- yes the cat can be a useful tool I think, in many ways:-)


CollB 5 years ago

I never knew Christmas could be so fascinating! Interesting to know that the Christmas tradition also incorporated heathen practices in such a place!


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks CollB -- nice to see you. I just checked out your blog and am following you there now--I really like the look and feel of it. Thanks for stopping by and commenting and Merry Christmas:-)


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 5 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

This was so delightful! I especially enjoyed Lighting the Tree in Kopavogur, seeing the faces of the children, listening to their chatter. Thanks for illuminating a bit of tradition and bringing a lot of winter merriment from a place so far away.

Door Slammer would be my Lad, too. My father's mother was quite fond of slamming doors. My mother says my grandmother was angry when she did that. My father's sister says the door slamming was a sign of happy energy. Whichever, Door Slammer resonates with me.


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks AT-- your comments are always creative and full of original observations. I am always so pleased when you stop by and leave a comment..... I'm glad too that you are a door slammer fan like me. I definitely have a bit of a thing for him.

There are so many Icelandic customs that reach back into the mists of time and have a truly ancient, mysterious quality to them. The Christmas Lads speak to the austerity of life on the edge of the known world in ancient times and to the courage of the people who lived there.


David99999 5 years ago

This was fascinating! Iceland is an intriguing place. Though, I've never been there, I read a great deal about it, and met, and gotten to know people from there. Iceland was founded by Erik the Red - whose son, Leif Erikssen, stumbled upon North America.

Great hub!


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Iceland is truly amazing-- both the place and its people are fascinating. As for the founding of Iceland, I think you are thinking of the Greenland Settlement, which was founded by Erik the Red when he got banished from Iceland-- It was actually a Norse viking named Ingólfur Arnarson who was the first confirmed settler in 874. Thanks for commenting-- I'm following you now:-)


frikadella profile image

frikadella 5 years ago

Yeah, I knooow. I just love the Yule lads - or Jólasveinar like we call them. But the interesting thing is that Grýla used to make babies (yeah, i know - i dont know how to say it nicely) with all kind of things. Poor Leppalúði didn't always get her love. So originally there are more then 100 yulelads but they are not as well known as the others. The ancient story about Grýla is quite fascinating actually, I love how she just had babies with just anything - men, women and animals. It's quite frightning.


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

hi Frikadella-- sorry to have taken so long to notice your comment. Yeah-- Grýla is even scarier than I knew-- thanks for the added info :-)

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working