Jo's Icelandic Recipes

 

The Yule Lads

The belief in the Yule Lads is ancient in Iceland. They are trolls who originally were known for making mischief and stealing things around Xmas-time. This mischievous nature is reflected in their names: Meat Snatcher (Kjötkrókur), Skyr Gobbler (Skyrgámur), Candle Beggar (Kertasníkir), Sheep-fold Sneaker (Stekkjarstaur), Ladle Licker (Ţvörusleikir), Pot Scraper (Pottaskefill), Bowl Licker (Askasleikir), Door Slammer (Hurđaskellir), Sausage Snatcher (Bjúgnakrćkir), Window Peeper (Gluggagćgir), Doorway Sniffer (Gáttaţefur). Their brothers Stumpy (Stúfur) and Gully Gawk (Giljagaur) weren't much better.

They and their parents, Ragamuffin and Hag, were useful for scaring children into behaving themselves. "If you're not good, the Hag will come and eat you!". The family pet, the Yuletide cat, was said to come and take all those who didn't get new clothes at Christmas. New clothes, shoes for example, were a reward for having been obedient and hard-working throughout the year, and the lazy didn't get any, and so the cat took them.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the modern Santa Claus appeared on the scene, and Icelanders became aware of the Scandinavian Julenisser, gnome-like creatures who were kind to children. The Yule lads began to develop into a mixture of Julenisser, Yule lads and Santa Claus. The modern Yule lads are funny old men with child-like minds and behavior. They have retained some of their mischievous nature, although these days they have learned that they will usually get what they want if they only ask for it.

The change from mischievous trolls to kind gift-givers worked quite well. All a child had to do was to put a shoe on the windowsill, and in the morning there would be a gift in the shoe. If the child had been bad, there might be a raw potato instead. The origin of this tradition probably lies in the foreign custom of hanging up stockings on Christmas Eve, to be filled by Santa during the night.

But this wasn't all. The Yule Lads had always dressed in rags before, but to reflect their new image, they adopted the dress of the American Santa Claus: red pants, red tunic, black boots and the classic red hat with white fur trimming. If you ever visit Iceland in December, chances are you will see these lads scampering about, entertaining children in shopping malls and generally having fun.

In the old days, the Lads would arrive one a day, for 13 days before Yule, and then leave one a day for 13 days after Yule. This is why Icelandic children get shoe gifts for 13 days before Christmas.

 

In 1999 the National Museum held a design competition which aimed at giving the lads costumes that were more reflective of their Icelandic heritage, and I expect that in the coming years more and more of them will begin to wear these excellent outfits. To see them, click here: http://www.natmus.is/Skemmtilegt/jolasveinar/nyjol.htm (click on the pictures to enlarge). For more pictures of the lads and their family, click here: http://jol.ismennt.is/myndasafn1.htm. There are 10 picture pages with various pictures of the lads.