The Icelandic Christmas Lads
Two of the Icelandic Yule Lads
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.
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
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."