Iceland‘s scary Christmas

By | Category: Travel destinations

Iceland: where Christmas is a bit different!

Christmas has a tradition for making you feel warm and cosy.It‘s a time when you suppose that all is right with your world. Father Christmas himself is a jolly, cheering figure, reindeer are furry animals generating an “aah” factor.

But not in Iceland. Many moons ago Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm found that scary stories were enjoyed by children and Roald Dahl exploited it successfully in some of his books.

Iceland goes one stage further. Yes they still give presents but they also get visited by characters called Yuletide Lads on each of the thirteen days leading up to Christmas Day. They are supposed to come down from their homes in the mountains and vist all Icelandic children on each of those nights. All children leave a shoe in their bedroom window on each of those 13 nights and one of the Yule lads will leave sweets, a small gift or a potato in the shoe depending on how the child has behaved itself in the last 24 hours. I can just imagine what my kids would have said if they had found a potato the following morning! The thirteen lads, their mother and cat aren‘t the most appealing creatures around but obviously they have stood the test of time.

Here are the thirteen in the order that they arrive to judge the children.

•Stekkjastaur or ‘Sheep-Cote clod’ comes on 12 December and harasses sheep, trying to steal their milk.
•Giljagaur or ‘Gully Gawk’ comes on 13 December and sneaks into cowsheds, skimming the froth off the pails of milk.
•Stúfur or ‘Shorty’ comes on 14 December and scrapes scraps of food from used pans.
•Þvörusleikir or the ‘spoon-licker’ comes on 15 December and steals wooden spoons that have been used for stirring food.
•Pottasleikir or the ‘pot-licker’ comes on 16 December and tries to snatch pots that have not been washed and licks the scraps from them.
•Askasleikir or the ‘bowl-licker’ comes on 17 December and hides under beds. If someone puts a wooden food bowl on the floor, he grabs it and licks it clean.
•Hurðaskellir or the ‘door-slammer’ comes on 18 December and is awfully noisy, slamming doors and keeping people awake wherever he goes.
•Skyrgámur or the ‘skyr-gobbler’ comes on 19 December 19 and sneaks into pantries and eats all the skyr – an Icelandic dairy product.
•Bjúgnakrækir or the ‘sausage-stealer’ comes on 20 December and loves sausages of all kinds, so he steals them whenever he can.
•Gluggagægir or the ‘window-peeper’ comes on 21 December and peeps through windows and even steals toys he likes the look of.
•Gáttaþefur or the ‘door-sniffer’ comes on 22 December and loves the smell of biscuits being baked for Christmas, so he stands by kitchen doors, sniffing. He often also tries to snatch a biscuit or two for himself.
•Ketkrókur or ‘meat-hook’ comes on Þorláksmessa (23 December) and steals meat. Legend has it that he would lower a hook down the kitchen chimney and pull up a leg of lamb hanging from a rafter, as smoked lamb was traditionally cooked on St. Þorlákur’s Day.
•Kertasníkir or the ‘candle-beggar’ comes on Christmas Eve and steals candles. Candles were so precious in the olden days that it was a rare treat for children to be given a candle at Christmas and the candle-beggar would steal the candles.

Mother to all 13 of the naughty Yule Lads, the story of Grýla is even more terrifying yet known by every child in Iceland. Described as part troll and part animal, Grýla is an ogress who lives in the Icelandic mountains with her third husband, (I dread to ask what might have happened to the other two,) her thirteen sons and ‘Jólakötturinn’, a big black cat. Every Christmas, Grýla comes down from the mountains in search of naughty children to boil in her cauldron. Grýla can only capture children who misbehave but those who repent must be released.

Jólakötturinn – the Christmas Cat
Living with Grýla the ogress and the 13 Yule Lads is an obnoxious feline known as the Christmas Cat. Old Icelandic folklore states that every Icelander must receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas or they will find themselves in mortal danger. The ‘Jólakötturinn’ prowls around Iceland on Christmas Eve and eats anyone who doesn’t follow this simple rule.

After all that, Santa Claus, the reindeer and the elves seem really tame in comparison

For more information about Iceland, click here.

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