Growing up in the United Kingdom I thought I had a firm grasp on what Christmas was.
Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, was a jolly man in a red suit who lived at the north pole and flew around the world to deliver presents to people in a reindeer led sleigh. If you were good then Santa would give you the things you wished for (by way of an army of elves), if you were on the naughty list then you would get coal and of course most importantly you had to leave out some milk and cookies for ol’ Saint Nick to eat while he travelled!
Taken out of context the whole arrangement is insane but there is something about Christmas that lets us suspend our disbelief and for a short while, in the dark of winter, believe in magic.
Then I moved to Iceland and everything I thought I knew about Christmas was thoroughly upended as I was introduced to a whole new set of traditions.
Join me now as we explore the Christmas period as celebrated in the frozen north.
Winter in Iceland is a very tough time of year. In stark contrast to the summer where the midnight sun bathes the county in twenty-four hours of sunlight, the winter see’s almost the opposite with incredibly short days and long nights. Under these conditions, it becomes very important to celebrate and keep spirits high and this mentality has clearly shaped how Icelanders approach Christmas. Rather than a short festive period where most of the revelry is done in a few days, the process in Iceland is stretched out over a much longer period.
How do they achieve this though? Well the first thing to note about the Icelandic Christmas tradition is that they don’t have a “Santa Claus” figure as the rest of the world may think of him but rather thirteen Yule lads
The Yule Lads
The Yule Lads are thirteen figures who are children of the cannibalistic trolls Grýla and Leppalúði. Starting on the 12th of December one Yule lad will descend from the mountains every day to cause mischief in the town until the 25th when they begin to leave, once again one by one.
Each one of these trolls has a signature prank for which they are named and while they are visiting they like to cause mischief. In more recent times these yule lads have also taken on a softer role, also being the ones to deliver gifts and presents to good children who leave out a shoe on their window sill though if you are a bad child you may awaken to find a potato instead!
December 12th: This is the day of Stekkjarstaur or the ‘Sheep-Cote Clod’. He is fond of sheep’s milk but struggles to get his hands on it because of his incredibly stiff legs they do not bend much at the knee. His day of departure is the 25th of December.
December 13th: This day belongs to Giljagaur or the ‘Gully Gawk’. Supposedly this yule lad can speak with cows! He hides in gullies in ditches where he waits for the cows to be milked and when possible he sneaks in to take the cream from the tops of the buckets. His day of departure is the 26th of December
December 14th: On this day, Stúfur or ‘Stubby’ comes to town. This yule lad is unusually short, especially for the son of trolls. He likes to sneak into your kitchens to eat the crusted remains from the bottom of your pans (though some may think this is actually quite helpful). He leaves town on the 27th of December.
December 15th: This is the day of Þvörusleikir or ‘Spoon-Licker’. This Yule Lad is incredibly thin and this fact is usually attributed to poor nutrition. As his name suggests he likes to sneak into your house to lick your wooden spoons. He stays around until the 28th of December.
December 16th: This day is the day of Pottaskefill or ‘Pot-Scraper’. This Yule Lad’s mission is similar to that of his brother Stúfur but while his brother seeks the remains on the bottom of pans, Pottaskefill hopes for leftovers in pots that he can eat. He leaves on the 29th of December.
December 17th: Askasleikir or the ‘Bowl-Licker’ arrives on this day. This Yule Lad is known to wait under his victims bed to see if people leave their ‘askur’ (A type of pot lid often also used as a dish) which he will then steal for his own meal. He stays in town until the 30th of December.
December 18th: On this day you will be met by Hurðaskellir the ‘Door-Slammer’. This Yule lad is perhaps one of the most mischievous of the bunch. He likes to slam your doors and make lots of noise while doing so. He is particularly fond of doing this in the evening or during the night when he can cause the most disruption. He leaves on the 31st of December
December 19th: This day is the day of Skyrgámur the ‘Skyr-Gobbler’. Unlike his brother who visited the day before, this Yule Lad is perhaps the least disruptive. Skyrgámur simply adores Skyr (an Icelandic dairy product that is consumed like yoghurt but is actually closer to cheese) and loves to eat as much of it as he can! He leaves on the 1st of January.
December 20th: On this day you will be visited by Bjúgnakrækir the ‘Sausage-Swiper’. Many homes in the olden days of Iceland would hang sausages from the rafters of their homes for these sausages to be smoked. This particular Yule lad hides up in the rafters and steals these sausages when he can find them. He leaves on the 2nd of January.
December 21st: On the 21st you may catch a glimpse of Gluggagægir the ‘Window-Peeper’. This yule lad, who is often shown to be wearing glasses, likes to peek in through the windows of people’s houses in the hopes of finding things to steal. He leaves the town on the 3rd of January.
December 22nd: On this day you will be visited by Gáttaþefur the ‘Doorway-Sniffer’. This Yule Lad has a comically large nose and sniffs the doorways of his victims to smell for Laufabrauð which is a traditional Icelandic bread eaten in the festive period. He will leave on the 4th of January
December 23rd: This is the day that belongs to Ketkrókur or ‘Meat-hook’. This Yule lad has a name that perhaps sounds more like it belongs in Halloween rather than Christmas but he is nothing to be afraid of. Much like his brother Bjúgnakrækir, Ketkrókur loves to eat smoked meats that hang from the rafters but this Yule Lad chooses to swipe them by sending his long meat hook down chimneys to swipe them. He loves to try and grab Christmas smoked ham and leaves on the 5th of January.
December 24th: Our final Yule Lad arrives on the day Icelanders hold their main Christmas celebration and is known as Kertasníkir the ‘Candle-Stealer’. This Yule Lad spends his time following children in the hopes that he may be able to steal their candles. In the past, these candles would have been made from animal fats and would have been edible! He leaves on January the 6th.
The Christmas Cat
Monstrous trolls who eat bad children and mischievous lads who come to town to cause trouble for people… Surely this is as strange as it gets?
Let me tell you about the Christmas cat.
This is the last piece of our Icelandic Christmas tale and it involves a large cat who is owned by the troll Grýla. This beast will come to town around Christmas and will eat anybody (regardless of age) who does not receive new clothes as a gift!
This part of the tradition though is one of the youngest with initial records of its inclusion only dating back to the 19th century. It’s believed that the Christmas cat story may have even been propagated to assist the struggling clothing industry of the time!
The lesser-known tradition
There is one more tradition in Icelandic Christmas that I would like to tell you about but this one is separate from the mythology of the traditions above.
This tradition is called the Jolabokaflod which translates to the ‘Christmas Book Flood’. Compared to many other countries around the world, Iceland has a very high number of published authors in its population and Icelanders, in general, are known to read a lot of books! During Christmas, it is common practice to give books to loved ones and then everyone snuggles up and reads their books through the night.
It is thought that Jolabokaflod dates back to World War II when the paper was one of the few items not to be rationed and thus books were a very inexpensive gift to be able to give during those tough times.
In recent years many book-loving people around the world have started to adopt the idea of the Jolabokaflod as a tradition for their own homes and families!
Christmas in Iceland is truly a magical time of year, full of stories and wonderment. For those looking to add a little extra sparkle to their festive period, a trip to Iceland might just be the way to do it.