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December 12th, 2013

Naughty Children of Iceland to Receive Potatoes

Sheep-Cote Clod

As if it weren’t odd enough that Icelanders shower naked together, they also have the unique practice of stuffing their children’s shoes with potatoes during the holidays!

Well, just for the naughty kind of child, that is. This time of year, the thirteen days leading up to Christmas Eve, the Yule Lads visit the houses of Icelandic children. Every night before bed, children place a shoe (ideally their nicest shoe) in their window, and if they’re lucky — if they’ve been “good” all year — they’ll have a treat in that shoe by morning. 

Potato or a Treat?

Here’s the pre-Christmas Eve line-up. Each of these not-so-sweet Lads comes to town, down from the mountains, one at a time to visit the children of Iceland. They are considered to be sneaky buggers who are generally up to no good. 

Arriving on Dec 12th is Stekkjastaur  Sheep Sneaker 
Arriving on Dec13th is Giljagaur – Gutter Lurker
Arriving on Dec 14th is Stúfur – Shorty 
Arriving on Dec 15th is Thvörusleikir – Spoon Licker 
Arriving on Dec 16th is Pottaskefill – Pot Scraper 
Arriving on Dec 17th is Askasleikir – Bowl Licker 
Arriving on Dec 18th is Hurdaskellir– Door Slammer
Arriving on Dec 19th is Skyrjarmur – Skyr Gobbler   *our favorite!* 
Arriving on Dec 20th is Bjúgnakraekir – Sausage Swiper 
Arriving on Dec 21st is Gluggagaegir – Window Peeper 
Arriving on Dec 22nd is Gáttathefur – Door Sniffer 
Arriving on Dec 23rd is Ketkrókur – Meat Hook 
Arriving on Dec 24th is Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar


Why Can’t they Just be Sweet?

Well, first of all, naughty makes a better story. To fully appreciate why these little trolls-turned-santas are so mischievous, you have to understand where they come from. After all, their hungry mother, Grýla, eats naughty children!

A little history…

The Yule Lads (or Icelandic Santas) are descendants of trolls. Sometimes they’re called Yulemen, Yule lads, or Yuletide Lads.  They’ve been a part of the foreshadowing of Christmas since Icelanders settled Iceland in the 9th Century. There used to be dozens of these Lads, but by modern times the number was reduced to just thirteen (suspicious eyes narrow in Grýla’s direction, of course)

Kids who have been well-behaved find a small toy in their shoe, something along the lines of stickers or a marble. What of those kids who weren’t well-behaved during the year?  The Lads fill their shoes with pieces of lava rock or raw potatoes.  

And then there’s the cranky black cat, known as the Yule Cat. (He appears in the film below). Yule Cat is the pet of Grýla and her third husband (she ate her first two husbands, due to her insatiable hunger).  Grýla uses the cat to help her catch naughty children. A child susceptible to the clutches of Yule Cat is one who fails to buy new Christmas clothes. Do not come between an Icelander and his or her deep, inner compulsion to buy a new Christmas outfit, because once upon a time, that outfit was a life or death purchase. Indeed, Icelandic children grow up very, very afraid of the Yule Cat.  

Should you be visiting Iceland this time of year, which we highly recommend, you can go on a tour of troll neighborhoods. Seriously. The town of Hafnarfjördur (where Smári is from) has the highest concentration of elves, trolls, and dwarves. You can sign up for a tour and read more, here.


How Ugly Are the Yule Lads?  

What do they look like? Here’s one illustration of the Yule Lads. Here’s another, er colorful, description of the Yule Lads of Iceland (clearly, growing up with the Yule Lad tradition is traumatic for some Icelanders).

“Yule Lads” the Film!

Watch a short, delightful animated film, “Yule Lads” here:  Yule Lads Animated Short Film  (really, watch it!)  The remarkable film is a work-in-progress by Shannon Connor. This painting of the Yule Cat and the Yule Lads is also by Shannon:  


© Shannon Connor




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