The Icelandic Yule Lads and Gryla | Iceland's Christmas TrollsIllustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

Who are the Icelandic Christmas Trolls? Who is celebrated in Iceland at Christmas if not Santa Claus? What role does the giantess Grýla play in Icelandic Christmas folklore, and what was the Christmas Cat? Continue reading to learn about Grýla and the Yule Lads, Iceland’s most famous Christmas characters.

Christmas: a time for bright lights, warm hearths, presents, family, delicious food, and… abject terror? Perhaps not around most of the world, but Iceland is not like most of the world. Then again, most of the world does not have Grýla or the Yule Lads, often referred to as the Christmas Trolls.

Perhaps terror is a slight exaggeration, but the concept of Santa in Iceland, in terms of Icelandic folklore, is very different to the one we know and love in most western cultures. Rather than imagining a jolly bearded man in red and white, the Santas of Iceland are thirteen filthy trolls led by their mother, a child-eating giantess named Grýla.

Throughout the majority of the year, these twisted versions of Santa are thought by many to hide in the daunting lava fortress of Dimmuborgir, located in the Mývatn area of north Iceland. Others believe they simply live in an un-identified mountainous area. From the 12th of December to the 24th, however, they depart one by one to engage in thirteen days of mischief. Each has different antics, ranging from grotesque to horrifying, which they indulge in across the country until the end of the Christmas Season.

The Yule Lads are as much a part of the country's festive tradition as the Icelandic Christmas Book Flood and eating smoked lamb.

The Yule Lads live in Dimmuborgir in North Iceland.

Today, their image has largely been sanitised; rather than being depicted as trolls defined by extreme deformities, they now tend to wear the traditional red and white clothes, fluffy beards and wide smiles. Rather than pulling pranks, they simply leave presents in the shoe that children place on their windowsills, a bit like the stockings on fireplaces in other cultures. In place of a piece of coal, naughty Icelandic children will find a potato in their shoe in the morning.

Even thought they've undergone a transformation, the Yule Lad's original trademark looks and behaviour tell a wealth of information about Icelandic history, culture and folklore, and they are a great example of how festive traditions differ around the world.

Contents

     iii - Stufur | Stubby
     viii - Skyrgamur | Skyr-Gobbler
     xii - Ketkrokur | Meat-Hook

Gryla | Mother of the Icelandic Yule Lads 

There are plenty of statues of Grýla around Iceland.

The Yule Lads may have been sanitised, but one part of the original Christmas tradition in Iceland that cannot be is Grýla, their mother. 

This giantess is one of the most evil figures of Icelandic folklore, and still told as a horror story to children over the festive season. Throughout the year, it is said that she collects whispers about children around the island misbehaving, and when winter sets in, she sets out to gather them.

Her appetite for the flesh of naughty youths is insatiable, and each year, she finds no shortage of her favourite crop. Collecting them up in a sack, she then cooks them in a pot and turns them into a giant stew that will sustain her until the next winter.

Grýla has a Christmas Cat for terrorising kids in Iceland.

Grýla would be terrible enough if she worked alone; sadly for Icelandic children, she does not. She shares her mountain cave in north Iceland with an enormous black feline called the Christmas Cat, which also has an appetite for human flesh. 

The Christmas Cat, however, does not just seek out those who have misbehaved; it happily preys on any child that did not get new clothes to wear for Christmas. 

Grýla also lives with her latest husband, a troll named Leppalúði. The least threatening member of her family, he is brow-beaten to the point of pathetic. Perhaps out of fear of what happened to Grýla’s previous partners, he exerts no influence over her evil tendencies. 

The traditions surrounding Grýla say a lot about Icelandic folklore. The fact she was a child-eater who sought out children over the festive season sends a similar message to kids as Santa bearing coal, if with a little less finesse: behave if you want a nice Christmas. 

The more brutal delivery of this message is likely due to the fact that winters in Iceland were incredibly dangerous, and many disobedient children who went out in the dark and snow never returned home. There was also a lot of work that needed to get done before the darkest months set in, requiring extra diligence and effort from all members of the family.

On this note, the story that the Christmas Cat ate children who did not get clothes as a gift was likely created to ensure that everyone finished their weaving, knitting and sewing by the dead of winter. 

Grýla is a foul, child-eating troll in Iceland.

The relationship between Grýla and Leppalúði is also a classic trope in Icelandic folklore. Many villainous couples in sagas and legends were composed of a cruel and bloodthirsty woman with a pathetic, spineless husband.

Grýla was such a terrifying image to children than in the 18th Century, the parliament outlawed the use of her legend as a scare tactic. Children were no longer threatened with being devoured, and were instead given rotten potatoes in their shoes if they misbehaved. 

Today, statues of Grýla can be found around the country, such as in the Akureyri Christmas house and by Fossatún, due to her integral role in Icelandic Christmas traditions. Her home is believed by many to be in Dimmuborgir, which is visited on many tours from Akureyri, the capital of north Iceland, and it is a stop on the popular Diamond Circle sightseeing route. 

It is also easy to reach on many winter self-drive tours and vacation packages.

The Thirteen Icelandic Yule Lads    

The Yule Lads as depicted through a modern lens.

In modern culture, when the season arrives, the Thirteen Yule Lads descend from the mountains to attend celebrations around the country, playing with children and entertaining revelers; they help make Iceland at Christmas even more of a delight. This, however, is a whitewashing of Icelandic folklore, as their original stories are much darker.

Though they did not inherit their murderous nature from their mother, the Icelandic Christmas Trolls were still widely feared by children for their creepy and revolting behaviour. Even adults in Iceland before industrialisation largely believed in trolls, so many would have been cautious that there was truth to the tales of these Christmas cretins. 

Though each Yule Lad had their own quirks, all shared the features of trolls. They were enormous, filthy, unintelligent creatures, humanoid and bestial in equal measure, who could only operate in the hours of the night, should the sun cast them into stone.

Stekkjastaur | Sheep Cote Clod     

Sheep Cote Clod is the first Icelandic Yule Lad.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

The first of the Yule Lads to leave the mountains to stir up trouble across Iceland was Stekkjastaur, or ‘Sheep-Cote Clod’. From the 12th of December until the 26th, his modus operandi was to harass the sheep of any household he came across. 

Icelanders would usually keep their sheep underground in the winter months, so when the sounds of their tormented bleating would echo up into the house, it was a sign Stekkjastaur had found them. Such a sound, though common in the winter months with storms regularly harassing the flock, became even more ominous, particularly considering that sheep were the lifeblood of every farmstead.

In spite of being a fearsome troll, Stekkjastaur, like many of his brothers, was limited by a deformity. His stiff legs impaired his ability to move, so the best thing to do, when hearing him rile up your animals, was to wait it out; he’d have to move on to your neighbour soon enough, in order to terrorise as many Icelandic homes as possible by sunrise.

Giljagaur | Gully Gawk     

The second Yule Lad is called Gully Gawk.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

Giljagaur, or ‘Gully Gawk’, was the second Icelandic Christmas troll. Hiding in the gullies around a house, waiting until its residents have fallen asleep, his method of troublemaking was to break into the cowshed to steal any milk available. 

In doing so, he robbed families of the key ingredient in the sauces meant to be enjoyed over the festive season, not to mention the traditional Skyr.

Although only wealthier Icelanders owned cows, most poorer people historically lived on the farmsteads of the rich, meaning all were affected by this troll’s antics.

Stufur | Stubby     

Stufur, or Stubby is one of the Icelandic Yule Lads.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

The third Yule Lad, Stúfur or ‘Stubby’, became a nuisance throughout Iceland at Christmas by stealing the household pans for the delicious crust that remained on them. From the 14th to the 26th of December, his appetite was insatiable.

While this may not seem like a terrible crime, historically, pots and pans were incredibly valuable in Iceland. The country had no mining industry of its own, and such goods had to be imported and were very expensive. For some impoverished families, they were the only possessions worth anything that they had.

Stúfur’s name came from the fact he was considerably shorter than his brothers. This, however, says nothing about the fear he inspired; being short for a half-giant still made him a formidable character. It also did not change the violent, selfish nature for which he and his family were known.

Thvorusleikir | Spoon-Licker   

Spoon-Licker is one of the Icelandic Christmas Trolls.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

Þvörusleikir, the fourth Yule Lad, is known in English as ‘Spoon-Licker’. This Christmas troll set out on his nationwide tour of mischief the fifteenth of December each year, to break into the homes of Icelanders and slaver his tongue over their spoons in the hope of a morsel to eat. 

Þvörusleikir’s behaviour was a result of his unique deformity; he was grotesquely gaunt from malnutrition, unusual amongst trolls who were most often depicted as overweight and muscular beasts.

The lesson to be learnt from Þvörusleikir’s behaviour is less apparent than with many of the other Yule Lads, although it was perhaps as simple as ensuring children cleaned their cutlery.

Pottaskefill | Pot-Scraper   

Pot-Scraper, or Pottaskefill, is one of Iceland's Yule Lads.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

Pottaskefill, known in English as ‘Pot-Scraper’, is like many of his brothers in that his Christmas hi-jinks are gluttonous. Breaking into one home after another, he seeks out pots of sauce, chunks of roast meat left on the tray, saucepans of seasonal vegetables, and scours off anything leftover to eat.

Pottaskefill was no doubt created to encourage children to finish their meals; leftovers may bring him sniffing at the door. As foodstuffs were meant to be preserved to last throughout the long winter months, any waste was greatly frowned upon. This was because no one dared a fishing trip onto the tumultuous seas in this season, or wanted slaughter an animal that could otherwise help them sustain their livelihoods in summer.

Askasleikir | Bowl-Licker 

Bowl-Licker is one of Iceland's thirteen Yule Lads.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

Gully-Gawk is out stealing milk; Stubby is munching on the crust of pans; Pot-Scraper is scoffing down leftovers; and Spoon-Licker is doing exactly what his name suggests. Also on the hunt for an easy morsel was the sixth brother, Askasleikir, although his antics were perhaps the creepiest thus far.

Askasleikir’s name in English is ‘Bowl-Licker’. He has a reputation for slurping the remains of whatever is left in bowls—or of an ‘askur’, an Icelandic type of bowl with a lid, to be specific—but the way he does so is rather nightmarish.

Each night, Askasleikir will quite literally lay beneath a child’s bed, waiting for them to finish their nighttime soup or pudding. When they are satisfied, he will readily snatch up the remaining food to guzzle down himself. Perhaps created to get children to go to sleep when asked, or not to indulge in a midnight snack, he epitomises the trope of the monster under the bed.

Hurdaskellir | Door-Slammer    

Door-Slammer is one of the more ominous Icelandic Yule Lads.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

Hurðaskellir has a modus operandi he learnt from another of the oldest of horror tropes. In English, his name is ‘Door-Slammer’, and as this Yule Lad embarks on his thirteen day journey over the festive season, it is all he intends to do.

Until the end of the month, he would sneak from home to home, reaching the furthest ends of the Westfjords to the bustling centre of Reykjavík, to break in and bang as many doors as he could in order to wake those sleeping inside.

It is doubtless that with the high winds of Iceland’s winter and the makeshift design of many turf houses in Iceland that many a child was kept wide awake in terror over the Christmas season, fully believing that Hurðaskellir to be making his rounds through their home.

Skyrgamur | Skyr-Gobbler     

The eighth Yule Lad loves to steal the Icelandic delicacy of Skyr.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

The meals leading up to Christmas are, without a doubt, some of the best of the year. One can indulge in perfectly cooked poultry, nut-roasts, mince pies, gingerbread men, cinnamon rolls and all manner of other treats. This season in Iceland, however, one dish deserves an extra special mention: the delicious and creamy Skyr.

This healthy, tasty, traditional dairy product can fairly be described as one of Iceland’s true delicacies, especially when compared to dishes such as ‘hákarl’, (fermented shark) and ‘Brennivín’ (a spirit appropriately nicknamed ‘black death’).

While a delight the whole year round, Skyr is a particular treat over Christmas, serving as a refreshment from the number of huge roast meals that usually accompany the holidays.

In terms of Icelandic Christmas folklore, however, people were not the only ones craving Skyr at this time of year. It was also the favourite meal of the eighth Icelandic Yule Lad, Skyrgámur, or ‘Skyr-Gobbler’.

From the 18th until the 30th, this national delight - a compliment to both sweet and savoury dishes - was under careful watch should it fall into the hands of this nefarious troll.

Bjugnakraekir | Sausage-Snatcher 

The Sausage Snatcher is an Icelandic Yule Lad.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

Smoking meats is one of the favourite cooking methods in Iceland. Smoked fish and lamb are popular throughout the year, as well as smoked sausages known in Icelandic as ‘bjúgu’.

From the night of the 20th, however, constant vigilance used to be required when preparing the bjúgu; it was the only piece of food that the ninth Yule Lad, Bjúgnakrækir, or ‘Sausage-Snatcher’, wanted to get his grubby hands on.

Bjúgnakrækir had perfected way of stealing this Icelandic delicacy. It was said that he would break into homes and hide in the rafters, waiting for dinner to be cooked, before swooping from above to snatch them.

Gluggagaegir | Window-Peeper     

Looking out for toys over Christmas is the Icelandic Yule Lad, Window Peeper.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

The tenth Yule Lad to descend from over the festive season was perhaps the creepiest of all; Gluggagægir, or ‘Window-Peeper’.

Considering the darkness of Iceland’s winters, where there are only four hours of sunlight a day, it takes little imagination to picture the fear children must have felt passing the windows of their homes on Christmas nights, terrified that this fearsome troll was looking in upon them. 

Like several of the other characters mentioned above, it seems like Gluggagægir’s chilling behaviour was designed as a way to scare children from going outside in the dark winters. It was also a reminder that the child-eating Grýla had eyes across the country, looking out for miscreants.

Gattathefur | Doorway-Sniffer    

The eleventh Icelandic Yule Lad is Doorway-Sniffer.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

Gáttaþefur, or ‘Doorway Sniffer’, may have come into folklore due to the whistling breaths of the wind creeping through Iceland’s draughty turf houses. Similar to Window-Peeper and Door-Slammer, the idea of him creeping into a home to cause mayhem haunted the nightmares of Iceland’s children.

This was exacerbated by the fact that Gáttaþefur was renowned for his enormous nose, massive even for his kind. The reason for his sniffing was also nefarious; he was forever seeking out his favourite meal, the Icelandic delicacy of laufabrauð (‘leaf-bread’).

This delicious treat only comes out over Christmas time, and making it is often a cherished family affair, especially in the North. It is notable for being round, very thin, fried, and decorated with intricate patterns, usually leaves.

Those renowned for detailed designs had particular umbrage with Gáttaþefur, as he would often steal their laufabrauð before they could impress a single guest with it.

Ketkrokur | Meat-Hook    

The penultimate Icelandic Yule Lad is Ketkrokur, or Meat-Hook.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

Christmas culinary traditions vary significantly between families, but there is one common central feature to most festive feasts, and that’s the meat. In Icelandic folklore, however, this was the target of thievery from the twelfth and penultimate Yule Lad, Ketkrókur, or ‘Meat Hook’.

Lurking wherever he had access to a kitchen (behind doors, under tables, in cupboards, outside open windows), he would lay in wait for the meat of any dish to be slapped onto the counter. As soon as he could avoid capture, he’d pull out his long hook and snag himself the centrepiece of a family meal.

Unlike his brother, Bjúgnakrækir, who only sought smoked sausages, Ketkrókur was indiscriminate in his tastes.

Outsiders to Iceland, however, may have found a visit from Ketkrókur a blessing. The 23rd of December, when he was said to set out, is Saint Thorlak’s day (Þorláksmessa), on which it is tradition to have fermented skate fish for dinner. Putrified and smelling intensely ammoniacal, having it stolen before it could be served could be quite the Christmas miracle.

Kertasnikir | Candle-Stealer 

Candle-Stealer is the last Icelandic Yule Lad.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

The final Yule Lad is Kertasníkir, whose name translates to ‘Candle-Stealer’ or 'Candle-Beggar'; he emerges on Christmas Eve in Iceland. Like his twelve brothers, his name is self-explanatory, although the consequences of his hi-jinks were more troublesome them they may appear.

In the past, candles were incredibly valuable in Iceland, providing light throughout the winter darkness; as noted, this lasts about twenty hours a day over Christmas. Candles were also the only available tool for Icelanders to enjoy their historically favourite pastime of reading, and over Christmas in Iceland, everyone getting together to read is an age-old tradition. 

This custom makes Kertasníkir’s antics all the more troublesome. His intent was not even to use the candles to enjoy novels and poetry; instead, he sought only to munch on the tallow that the candles were made from.

To get as much of this tallow as possible, he made sure he took it from the easiest targets in a household, the children, by following them to their bedrooms or reading nooks and robbing straight from their hands.

Kertasníkir was, without a doubt, one of the most intrusive Yule Lads, and one of the upsetting to kids. All, however, could take solace in the fact that he was the last, and in thirteen days, he (along with his brothers, mother, and her cat) would be back in the caves in north Iceland, laying dormant until the next Yuletide.