Jólasveinar – the Icelandic Santa Clauses
How lucky are the Icelandic kids? Thirteen Santa Clauses means thirteen different gifts, right? But the story of the Icelandic Santa Clauses is different from how we think and see it nowadays.
At the beginning of the Icelandic community existence, they were not celebrating Christmas but the winter solstice or the mid-winter. 21st December is the day of the winter solstice when there are only two hours and 30 minutes of daylight. Excepting this day, there are only four hours of daylight during winter and Icelanders are celebrating the darkest period of the winter.
The mid-winter festival is a Viking celebration of the winter solstice. They called it ‘Jól’ and became the Icelandic word for Christmas. Throughout the years, as Christianism took over, Iceland adopted some Christmas traditions from outside the country. They added Santa Claus(es) to their Christmas celebration but in the Icelandic style.
The Yule Lads story
Nowadays there are thirteen Santa Clauses in Iceland, yep you read well, 13 Santa Clauses. The Yule Lads, as they call them in Iceland are the Santa Clauses in Iceland. But at the beginning, they were not so nice as we know Santa Clause is. In Icelandic folklore, they were trolls -some kind of monsters- that were living in the mountains and around the period of winter solstice they were coming into the towns to scare the badly behaved children and to steal from the Icelander’s households.
Legend says that the Yule Lads are the sons of Gryla and Leppalúði. Grýla is a half-troll, half-ogre creature who lives in the Dimmuborgir site with her husband Leppalúði. In Icelandic folklore, Grýla has a huge appetite for children together with her gigantic pet cat. The story says that, during the Christmas period, Grýla and her cat would eat the children for not getting any new clothes. This story was created in the past to encourage children to finish their weaving, knitting, and sewing tasks before the cold winter season begins.
Like their mother, her thirteen sons are terrorizing Icelanders before Christmas and each of them came in different nights into the Icelanders’ homes with different strategies from where they also got their names. For example, Skyr-Gobbler would come into Icelander’s homes and steal and lick all the house supplies of Skyr. But let’s find more about the Yule Lads.
The first Yule Lad comes on the night before the 12th of December and his name is Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote-Clod). In Icelandic folklore is said that Stekkjastaur came to suck milk from the sheep.
The second Yule Lad comes on the night before the 13th of December. His name is Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) and he likes to hide inside the barns to steal the froth of the milk buckets.
The third Yule Lad is called Stúfur (Stubby) and the name might say what he likes to do. He is stealing pans to eat the crust lefts in them. He is coming into the Icelander’s houses on the night before the 14th of December.
The fourth Yule Lad is stealing þvörur (long wooden spoons) to lick them. His name is Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker) and comes on the night before the 15th of December.
Pottaskefill (Pot-Licker) is the fifth Yule Lad that is coming on the night before the 16th of December. As the name says he is stealing the pots to eat the leftovers in them.
Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker) comes on the night before the 17th of December and hides under the bed. Icelanders used to keep there a plate that is used for all meals – “askur” and Askasleikir steal it to eat from it.
The seventh Yule Lad is called Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer) he came on the night before the 18th of December and it is a little different from his brothers. He is the one who likes to make noise by slamming the doors during the night.
On the night before the 19th of December comes the eight of the Yule Lads, the Skyrgamur – Skyr Gobbler. He is stealing the pots where people were keeping skyr (Icelandic dairy product) and eating all the skyr. Well, I understand him perfectly, skyr is so good.
Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper) is the ninth of the Yule Lads and he comes on the night before the 20th of December. He hides in the rafters and steals all the smoked sausages. I can not blame him either, Icelandic smoked sausages are the best.
Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper) comes on the eve of 21st of December and he is peeking inside the people’s houses to find something to steal.
The eleventh Yule Lad is called Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer) and he has a long nose and a strong sense of smell. He is coming on the night before the 22nd of December and is sniffing at the people’s door and steals the Laufabrauð when he finds it.
On the night before the 23rd of December comes the twelfth of the Yule Lads, Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook). He has a hook that helps him steal the meat from the Icelander’s houses.
The last one of the Yule Lads comes before the 24th of December. His name is Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer) and as his name suggests, he steals the candles from the kids to eat them. The candles were made of fat so that’s why he ate them.
The Yule Lads are coming thirteen days before Christmas day and each of them stays for 13 days then leave in the order they come starting the 25th of December.
Some people say that the Yule Lads story started from the homeless people in Iceland that during the darkest period of the year came to steal food from Icelander’s houses.
The story of the Yule Lads got modified by time and they are not only stealing the Skyr or harassing the livestock anymore, nowadays they are bringing gifts for nice behaved children and stealing from the badly behaved ones. And so were created the thirteen Santa Clauses in Iceland.
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