The many horrors of an Icelandic Christmas

The many horrors of an Icelandic Christmas
Written by admin

A sculpture of Grýla and his son Yule lad Skyrgámur at Keflavik International Airport

A sculpture of Grýla and his son Yule lad Skyrgámur at Keflavik International Airport

My condolences to the children of Iceland. While many Christmas celebrations around the world are filled with news of comfort, joy and rampant consumerism, for young Icelanders it is a time of terror, where you are lucky enough to escape with your life… or a potato. At least, that seems to be the case according to this fascinating scary folklore.

Let’s start with Grýla, a giant half-troll, half-animal creature who lives in the Dimmuburgir mountains and comes down at Christmas in search of mischievous children to kidnap. When she brings them home, she boils them alive in her cauldron to prepare a very hot stew for her and her third husband, Leppalúði, which lasts until the following winter. Apparently, the Icelandic children are really terrified of Grýla; Depictions of the ogress can be seen throughout the country, though she sometimes resembles a huge, gnarled old woman more than a beast. However, according to Legends of Iceland collected by Jón Arnasenpublished in English in 1864, here is a description indicating why it inspires genuine fear:

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“Grýla had three hundred heads, six eyes on each head, plus two ghostly, livid blue eyes on the back of each neck. She had goat’s horns, and her ears were so long that they reached her shoulders at one end and met the tips of her three hundred noses at the other. On each forehead of her was a lock of hair, and on each chin of her was a tangled, dirty beard. Her teeth were like burned lava. To each thing she had tied a sack in which he used to carry naughty children and also had horse’s hooves. In addition to all this, she had fifteen tails, and in each tail one hundred skin bags, each of which could hold twenty children.

That means Grýla is grabbing up to 2000 naughty children at once, indicating either that she’s a wonderfully efficient kidnapper or that Iceland has an unfathomably horrible mischief problem. For the record, the official tourism site because Iceland softens the image of Grýla by saying that “he can only capture children who misbehave, but those who repent must be released”, but I can’t find another source to support that.

Happily, Grýla managed to find love, well, marriage, at least, on three separate occasions. The first two were called Gustur and Boli; legends vary as to whether they were eaten, killed, or died of old age (and who died in what manner). She is currently married to the troll Leppalúði, who lounges around in her cave while Grýla does all the work of kidnapping and cooking the children. But they certainly have chemistry! The couple have 33 children, 13 of whom are collectively known as the “Yule Lads”.

The Yule Lads aren’t murderers, thank goodness, but they are creepy. During each of the 13 days leading up to Christmas, one of these brothers comes to people’s homes and does something exceptionally disgusting. According to Travel to Icelandalso have very evocative names. Is it so…

1) Lump of sheep (Stekkjastaur)

Come December 12, he would find the sheep and drink the milk directly from their teats.

2) Gully Gawk (Giljagaur)

On December 13, old Giljagaur would wait for “the chance to sneak into the barn to slurp the fresh milk froth when the milkmaid looks away.” Iceland Travel’s words, not mine.

3) Chubby (Stufur)

Fortunately, not everyone is a milk pervert. Stúfur just wants the scrapings from the pans when he comes to town on December 14th.

4) Spoonlickers (Þvörusleikir)

Many of the Yule Lads enjoy cleaning the dishes by hand. You can probably guess what the old Þvörusleikir will do on December 15th.

5) Pot Scraper (Pottasleikir)

The same, but for December 16.

6) Pacifier bowls (Askasleikir)

These guys may look benign, but they leave you with troll spit all over the place. Anyway, the bowls are licked on December 17.

7) Door strike (Hurðaskellir)

Your cookware and utensils will be safe on December 18, when Hurðaskellir shows up to slam a nasty door in the middle of the night.

8) Skyr Gobbler (Skyrgamur)

With the doors closed, the Yule Lads turn their attention to the food. On December 19, Skyr Gobbler steals the skyan Icelandic dairy product similar to yogurt.

9) Swiper Sausage (Bjúgnakrækir)

It’s self-explanatory and yes, it’s coming on December 20th. However, he hides in the rafters of your house while he waits to steal those sausages, which seems unnecessarily creepy.

10) Window Peeper (Gluggagægir)

Despite the English connotations of the word “peeper”, old Gluggagægir is just looking for things to steal from the windows on December 21st. If you were naked in front of your window, it’s your fault.

11) Door detector (Gáttaþefur)

Easily the most hauntingly named Yule Lad on this list, Gáttaþefur is actually one of the most benign: Respectively, he stays outside unless he arrives at your doorstep and smells Christmas cookies on December 22.

12) Meat Hook (Kjetkrókur)

And back to stealing meat! On December 23, Gáttaþefur makes his way to your tower and lowers a hook down your chimney, hoping to snag any meat hanging from the rafters or cooking in the fire.

13) Beggar candle (Kertasnikir)

Finally, Christmas Eve sees the arrival of Kertasníkir, who, strangely, wants to take a bit off the candles.

Despite their particular fetishes, the Yule Lads will leave a small gift for children who leave their shoes on the windowsills, if they have been good. If they’ve been naughty, they get a rotten potato, though Grýla will likely kill and eat them before they have a chance to find it.

But Grýla isn’t the only killer stalking Iceland at Christmas. Grýla has a cat named jolakotturinn, the Yule Cat, who is black as night and towers over the houses, and has a unique appetite. It is said that he prowls the town and eats anyone, not just children, who does not receive an article of clothing for Christmas. Although the folklore of the Christmas Cat goes back centuries, it was made famous in Iceland in 1932 by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, who wrote a poem about it. He later set himself to music, which was recorded even later by tIcelandic pop star Bjork. Here is part of what seems to be the most popular, albeit quite literal, translation from the poem on the internet:

If a faint “meow” is heard outside

Then bad luck was sure to happen

Everyone knew that he hunted men.

And I didn’t want mice

He followed the poorest people.

Who didn’t get new clothes?

Close to Christmas – and I tried and lived

in the worst conditions

Of them took at the same time

All your Christmas food

And to them too

if he could

Therefore, the women competed

To rock and sow and spin

And colorful woven clothes

Or a little sock

Brutal, huh? Well, the silver lining is that the Christmas Cat is not just a ruthless killer of the impoverished, but a grim reminder to those in need… so they won’t be killed by a cat. The poem continues:

if it still exists I don’t know

But it would not be his trip at all

If everyone received next Christmas

some new rag

You may want to keep that in mind

To help if there is a need.

Because somewhere there may be children

Who gets nothing at all

Maybe to look for those who suffer

Due to lack of abundant lights

will give you a happy season

and Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all! And sorry, Iceland.

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