A Brief Guide to Iceland's 13 Mischievous Yule Lads—and Their Ogre Mother

Eeems, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Eeems, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Iceland, folklore has deep roots. Stories passed down from generation to generation about elves, trolls, giants, and other mythological creatures living in the country’s many natural wonders are still a big part of Icelandic culture. Stories surrounding Christmas are no exception—although in Iceland, things aren't always quite as jolly as the bearded man in a red suit.

Instead of Santa Claus, Iceland has the 13 Yule Lads, or Jólasveinar. According to Iceland Magazine, the Yule Lads live in undisclosed locations around the country and descend onto villages one by one during the 13 days before Christmas. These half-ogre, half-trolls are said to break into houses and terrify children while their mother, Grýla, stuffs bad kids in a sack and turns them into stew. If you're thinking this sounds gruesome, you're right, but it used to be worse: In the 18th century, according to the BBC, storytellers would compete to tell tales about the lads' violent adventures. The stories got so bloody that in 1746, the government issued a decree prohibiting parents from scaring kids with the stories of the Yule Lads, according to Atlas Obscura.

Today, the Yule Lads are pretty kind. They've been influenced by American ideas about Christmas, and like Mr. Claus, they now leave gifts rather than stealing food. However, their earlier incarnations live on. Here's what you need to know about each of the Yule Lads, listed here in the order in which they appear in town.

1. Stekkjastaur, or Sheep-Cote Clod

Stekkjastaur is said to have long, stiff legs. He sneaks onto farms and steal milk straight from the farmers' ewes. During the winter months, when the winds would blow and farmers would hear the sheep bleating, it was believed that the animals were being harassed by Stekkjastaur.

2. Giljagaur, or Gully Gawk

According to legend, this Yule Lad would hide in gullies all over town and then sneak into cow sheds to steal milk—sometimes right from the animal. While this may not seem like a big deal, in doing so Giljagaur was robbing people of a key ingredient in many Icelandic dishes.

3. Stúfur, or Stubby

Shorter than the rest of his brothers, Stúfur was infamous for stealing pots and pans containing leftover crust. This might seem harmless enough, but many families depended on leftovers to get them through the long winters, and in some cases their pots and pans might be the most valuable items they owned.

4. Þvörusleikir, or Spoon-Licker

Abnormally thin and with a self-explanatory name, Þvörusleikir would sneak into homes and lick unwashed cutlery.

5. Pottaskefill, or Pot-Scraper

Just like Þvörusleikir, Pottaskefill steals leftovers.

6. Askasleikir, or Bowl-Licker

It’s creepy enough that Askasleikir sneaks into homes in the middle of the night to lick leftovers that are in bowls. But to make matters worse, he hides under the beds of children and waits for them to fall asleep before sneaking whatever is left.

7. Hurðaskellir, or Door-Slammer

Hurðaskellir seems particularly evil. Legend has it that he would sneak into homes all across Iceland and slam doors in the middle of the night while people were trying to sleep.

8. Skyrgámur, or Skyr-Gobbler

Skyr, which is a lot like yogurt, is a key ingredient in the Icelandic diet, especially around the holidays. So you can imagine an Icelander's disappointment after waking up and finding that Skyrgámur had stolen most of it.

9. Bjúgnakrækir, or Sausage-Swiper

Starting December 20, one has to be particularly careful about keeping an eye on their smoked sausage. It's said that Bjúgnakrækir will break into people’s homes and hide in the rafters; once the coast is clear, he’ll swoop down and snatch any available sausage.

10. Gluggagægir, or Window-Peeper

As if having monsters break into your house and steal food isn't bad enough, Icelanders also had to watch for peeping in their windows. Gluggagægir not only served as a reminder for children to not go outside during the dark, cold winter months, but served as eyes for his mother, keeping track of naughty children she could steal and boil for dinner.

11. Gáttaþefur, or Door-Sniffer

This Yule Lad was known for his abnormally large nose, which he would use to sniff out baked goods. Legend has it that he was forever searching for laufabrauð, or leaf bread, a Christmas delicacy often decorated with intricate patterns.

12. Ketkrókur, or Meat Hook

Ketkrókur would lurk in different locations in the house, and when everyone was asleep, use a long hook to steal the centerpiece of the Christmas meal—meat. Unlike his brother Bjúgnakrækir, who only enjoyed smoked sausage, Gáttaþefur didn’t discriminate when it comes to his animal protein.

13. Kertasníkir, or Candle-Beggar

Like his siblings, at first the crimes of Kertasníkir, or the candle stealer, may seem harmless, but they're not. In years past, candles were a vital part of surviving the winter in Iceland, since they provided light during the long hours without sun. And Kertasníkir didn’t even use the candles. Instead, he ate the tallow they were made from. To make matters worse, rather than hiding out like his siblings, Kertasníkir stole candles right out of children’s hands.

14. Grýla

The mother of all 13 Yule Lads, the ogress Grýla is one of the oldest mythical characters in Icelandic folklore. The earliest writing about her dates back to 13th-century manuscripts. Grýla, whose name loosely translates to "growler" according to Smithsonian, is known for beating and berating her husband Leppalúði, a troll and the father of the 13 Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla was married twice before, but she killed and ate her first husband, Gustur, and murdered her second husband, Boli.

While there's disagreement on what she looked like, one rhyme says the ogress has 15 tails, each of which holds 100 bags with 20 children. Another story claims she has 40 tails. Some poems say she has 300 heads, each of which has three eyes. Other legends claim she has eyes in the back of her head, ears that are so big they hit her nose, a beard, blackened teeth, and hooves. In other words, she's probably not someone you want to run into if you're alone in the woods.

Grýla also had a unique survival hack: It's said that she set out when winter started to look for children who had misbehaved. Once she found them, she stuffed them in a giant sack, and then took them back to her cave to boil them alive. The result was a stew she ate until next winter.

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How the Doughnut Became a Symbol of Volunteerism During World War I

National WWI Museum and Memorial
National WWI Museum and Memorial

If you’ve ever eaten a free doughnut on the first Friday in June, you’ve celebrated the Doughnut Lassies—whether you realized it or not. National Doughnut Day was established to honor the Salvation Army volunteers who fried sugary snacks for World War I soldiers on the front lines. Some Doughnut Lassies were even willing to risk their lives to provide that momentary morale boost. One story from The War Romance Of The Salvation Army (written by Evangeline Booth, daughter of the Salvation Army’s founders) describes a volunteer serving doughnuts and cocoa to a troop under heavy fire. When she was told by the regiment colonel to turn back, she responded, “Colonel, we can die with the men, but we cannot leave them.”

Frying on the Front Lines

The decision to serve doughnuts on the battlefield was partly a practical one. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the Salvation Army, a Christian charity organization, sent roughly 250 “salvationists” (who were mostly women) to France, where American troops were stationed. The plan was to bring treats and supplies as close to the front lines as possible. But the closer the volunteers got to the action, the fewer resources they could access.

“It was difficult creating the pies and cakes and other baked goods they thought they might be making,” Lora Vogt, curator of education at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, tells Mental Floss. “Instead, they realized the doughnut was a very efficient use of both the time and the ingredient resources. And you could make thousands of doughnuts in a day to feed all the men serving.”

Ensign Margaret Sheldon and Adjutant Helen Purviance are credited with bringing doughnuts to the Western Front. They had a handful of ingredients at their disposal, including flour, sugar, lard, baking powder, and canned milk. Doughnuts were one of the few confections they could make without an oven, and once they had a fire hot enough to heat the oil, they could fry them up fast. The women had the pan to cook them in, but for other parts of the recipe, they had to get creative. In a pinch, grape juice bottles and shell casings became rolling pins; an empty baking powder can became a doughnut cutter; and a tube that had come loose from a coffeemaker punched the holes.

Sheldon and Purviance's pan could fit seven doughnuts at a time, and on day one, they made just 150 doughnuts for the outfit of 800 men. Those who were lucky enough to grab a morsel were smitten, with one exclaiming “Gee! If this is war, let it continue!” according to The War Romance Of The Salvation Army. The salvationists fine-tuned their operation, and were eventually making 5000 doughnuts a day. The snacks were so beloved, the volunteers earned the nickname Doughnut Lassies, while the soldiers they served were dubbed Doughboys.

The All-American Doughnut

The Doughnut Lassies’s impact didn’t end with World War I. Prior to the war, Americans hadn’t fully embraced the doughnut. Dutch immigrants enjoyed doughnuts in the country for decades, but they weren’t considered an integrated part of American cuisine. It was the U.S. soldiers’s experience with doughnuts overseas that popularized them back home. “You have millions who are serving on the front lines who then have a really lovely association with the doughnut who may not have had one before,” Vogt says.

World War I also contributed to doughnuts' popularity in a less direct way. The dessert appealed to U.S. bakers during wartime for the same reason the salvationists chose it: Recipes were adaptable and didn’t call for a ton of hard-to-source ingredients. “Crisco was putting out recipes for wartime doughnuts, and they suggested using Crisco as an alternative to lard because lard should be saved," Vogt says. "So you have this movement both on the front line and on the home front that let all Americans realize how delicious doughnuts could be.”

The Rise of National Doughnut Day

In 1938, the Salvation Army took advantage of its unofficial, sugary symbol and established National Doughnut Day to raise awareness of its charity work. Today, brands like Dunkin' and Krispy Kreme use the holiday as a marketing opportunity, but according to Vogt, the day is meant to be more about the Lassies’s service than the doughnuts they served. “National Doughnut Day is actually not about the doughnut. It is all about the Salvation Army volunteerism,” she says. “That concept of service and being able to share and build your community is part of what doughnut day is about.”

National Doughnut Day isn’t the only day dedicated to the treat in the U.S. A second National Doughnut Day falls on November 5, but the origins of that holiday aren’t as clear. If you want to enjoy some fried dough while commemorating a lesser-known part of World War I history, the first Friday in June—June 5, in 2020—is the day to remember.