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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'Jingle Bells' Was Originally Written as a Thanksgiving Song

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash
Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash

Thanksgiving has got nothing on Christmas when it comes to songs that are specific to the holiday. Beyond Adam Sandler’s “The Thanksgiving Song” and ... "The Thanksgiving Song" remix, there aren't a ton of songs you associate with Turkey Day. Unless you count "Jingle Bells."

Back in 1850 or 1851, James Lord Pierpont was perhaps enjoying a little holiday cheer at the Simpson Tavern in Medford, Massachusetts, when Medford’s famous sleigh races to neighboring Malden Square inspired him to write a tune. The story goes that Pierpont picked out the song on the piano belonging to the owner of the boarding house attached to the tavern because he wanted something to play for Thanksgiving at his Sunday school class in Boston. The resulting song wasn’t just a hit with the kids; adults loved it so much that the lyrics to “One Horse Open Sleigh” were altered slightly and used for Christmas. The song was published in 1857, when Pierpont was working at a Unitarian Church in Savannah, Georgia.

Another bit of trivia for you: Mr. Pierpont was the uncle of banker John Pierpont Morgan, better known as J.P. Morgan. Despite this, and despite the fact that his famous holiday composition should have made him a millionaire, Pierpont struggled to make ends meet. Even after his son renewed the copyright on "Jingle Bells" in 1880, 13 years before his father’s death, it was never enforced enough to produce any real income.

Though lyrics about turkey and the Pilgrims aren’t as abundant as tunes for certain other holidays, they’re out there. Here are a couple:

“Over the River and Through the Wood”

They might as well crown Medford, Massachusetts, the Thanksgiving Capital of the United States, because the song “Over the River and Through the Woods” was born there, too. Lydia Maria Child wrote the poem “A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day” about a trip to her grandfather’s house, which, yes, really does sit near the Mystic River in Medford, Massachusetts. It’s still there today, owned by Tufts University and used as a home for Tufts dignitaries. The poem was later set to music and became the classic we know today.

"Alice’s Restaurant Massacre"

It doesn’t have much to do with Thanksgiving, except that the real-life events that inspired the song took place on Thanksgiving. After dumping some litter illegally on Turkey Day in 1967, Arlo Guthrie was arrested. When he later went to the induction center to find out about his draft status, Guthrie realized that he had been declared ineligible for the draft due to his lack of moral conduct. The song, which is 18+ minutes long, became a huge hit amongst war and draft protesters.

This story has been updated for 2020.