Yule Lads

The Icelandic tradition that, instead of Santa Claus, 13 magical brothers visit children on the nights leading up to Christmas.

The Dimmuborgir lava fields of northeastern Iceland is said to be the home of the ogre/troll Grýla, her lazy third husband Leppaludi (she murdered her first two husbands), and at least 13 of her troll children. The number 13 is the recently agreed upon number because, as with any folk tale, the exact names & numbers have changed over time. At one point Grýla was said to have as many as 82 possible children depending on the version of the story. Her appearance also changes with the telling of the story – she sometimes has horns, cloven feet, 40 tails or maybe 15 tails, 3 faces or just 1 face, etc.

Exactly what Grýla looks like has varied over the centuries, but her affinity for eating children has remained constant. Also, the painting of her on the right, looking very much like Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son, is by artist Thrándur Þórarinsson.

Grýla hears about bad Icelandic children all year long and, in the dark cold of winter, she wanders the land tracking them down. She kidnaps misbehaved children, sticking them in a sack over her shoulder (or in a sack being held by one of her tails), and takes them back to her cave where she cooks them into a stew for herself and Leppaludi. Around the same time her sons set out to perform mischief.

The 13 Brothers

Each of Grýla’s 13 sons depart for Icelandic homes one at a time, with one arriving each night for 13 successive nights. Stekkjarstaur, “Sheep-worrier”, arrives first on the night of December 12th. Each son has a proclivity towards a certain kind of mischief that (a bit on the nose, and rather like the 7 dwarfs) their preferred form of mischief is each troll’s name. On December 16th Pottaskefill “Pot-scraper” arrives to steal leftovers from pots. On December 18th Hurðaskellir, “Door-slammer”, arrives and slams doors at night – and so on. The culmination of this is the arrival of Kertasníkir, “Candle-stealer”, on Christmas Eve. Each son remains for 13 days after their arrival, somewhere hidden it would seem, and depart for home one by one until next winter.

A collection of Yule Lad illustrations, after their sanitizing rebranding. The illustrations of Brian Pilkington in particular, more than anyone else, has helped define the Yule Lads for modern audiences.

From Winter Bad Boys to Santa Stand-Ins

The idea of the ogress Grýla’s and her 13 sons wandering the land in winter was incredibly scary for children (like the scary idea of Krampus wandering the Alps). At best these creatures may invade your home and cause havoc, at worst you might be kidnapped & eaten. Perhaps understandably in 1746 the Danish government (who governed Iceland at the time) banned Icelandic parents from using this story to scare their children.

Beginning in the 18th century, and especially in the 19th century, this story underwent a sanitizing change in public image (except Grýla, who continued to be a murderous villain). The change started slowly in the more densely populated towns but eventually spread across the country to farm houses as well. Rather than being a winter story of dark forces it took on more of a whimsical Christmas sentiment. 

The 13 troll brothers were reimagined as light-hearted bearded gnomes/dwarfs. To further the association with Christmas they became the Jólasveinar, the “Yule Lads”, and instead of solely spreading mischief they became gift givers. Similar to how Santa rewards the good and punishes the bad, the Yule Lads took on the role of Christmas good cop bad cop. On each of the 13 nights children are instructed to leave a shoe by the window where, if they’ve been good, the Yule Lad who arrives that night will leave a gift. If the child has been bad however they’ll get a rotten potato.

The Yule Cat

This Icelandic Christmas tradition has one more evil component: Jólakötturinn the “Yule Cat”. Similar to how Azrael is the evil cat companion of Gargamel in The Smurfs, so too is Jólakötturinn the devilish pet of Grýla. Jólakötturinn is said to be a gigantic black cat who prowls Christmas night looking for children (or possible adults as well) who did not receive new clothes for Christmas. The ones he finds he eats. 

Many Levels

Fairy tales / folk tales entertain as well as educate, and the Icelandic tradition of Grýla and the Yule Lads is no different. These stories teach practical lessons and communicate cultural values. Prosaically telling a child not to waste limited food resources in the winter is ok, but telling them a troll may come in the night and steal their food will certainly get their attention. Grýla instills the lesson that Icelandic winters are harsh and dangerous, don’t go outdoors alone. Even the Yule Cat’s story has more to do with putting pressure on Icelanders to finish their weaving projects before Christmas, instilling a strong work ethic in the next generation, than the idea that a diabolical black cat likes to see people in new clothes.

Added info: Of Grýla’s other children that didn’t make the sanitized final 13, Lungnaslettir has to be the most memorable / horrific. He carries his lungs outside of his body (or possibly the lungs of a sheep). His name translates to “Lung-splatterer” as his chosen form of mischief is to chase children and hit them with his bloody lungs.

The highly influential 2001 book The Yule Lads: A Celebration of Iceland’s Christmas Folklore by Brian Pilkington, more than anything else, has helped define the Yule Lads for modern audiences. Pilkington’s illustration work is nostalgic to the folk tradition while still reimagining the characters. His Yule Lad illustrations are also the basis for a fun collection of Christmas tree ornaments.

Also, national treasure Björk has recorded multiple Christmas songs based on Icelandic Christmas traditions. The first is 1987’s Jólakotturinn, about the Yule Cat. The second is 1995’s Jólasveinar ganga um gólf a new version of the traditional Icelandic song about the Yule Lads.

Learn more about the Yule Cat, Grýla, and the Yule Lads.

A great intro to Icelandic Christmas traditions.

One of two Icelandic Christmas songs Björk has recorded, Jólasveinar ganga um gólf is a new version of the traditional Icelandic song about the Yule Lads.