The Many Horrors of an Icelandic Christmas

The Many Horrors of an Icelandic Christmas
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Statue of Grýla and her Yule boy Skyrgámur at Keflavík International Airport

Statue of Grýla and her Yule boy Skyrgámur at Keflavík International Airport

I offer my condolences to his children Iceland. While many Christmas celebrations around the world are filled with messages of comfort, joy and widespread consumerism, for young Icelanders it is during the terror, where you’re lucky enough to escape with your life… or a potato. At least, that’s how it looks, admirably horror folklore.

Let’s start with Grýla, a giant part-troll, part-beast who lives in the mountains of Dimmuburgir and descends in search of mischievous children who will be kidnapped at Christmas. When she brings them home, she boils them alive in her cauldron for a hot stew that lasts until the next winter for herself and her third husband, Leppalúdi. Apparently, Icelandic children are really afraid of Grýla; Depictions of the ogre can be seen all over the country, although sometimes it looks more like a giant, curly old woman than an animal. However, according to Icelandic legends collected by Jón ArnasenPublished in English in 1864, here’s a description that shows why it inspired real fear:

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“Grýla had three hundred heads, six eyes in each head, and two bright and ghostly blue eyes behind each neck. He had goat horns and ears so long that one end reached his shoulders and the other end reached the tips of his three hundred noses he had a tuft of hair on each forehead, and a matted and dirty beard on each chin. His teeth were like burnt lava. He had a sack tied around everything, in which he carried naughty children, and he had hooves like a horse’s. Besides all this, he had fifteen tails. and on each tail was a hundred bags of skins, with twenty children in each bag.’

This means that Grýla catches up to 2,000 naughty children at a time, which either means she’s an amazingly efficient kidnapper or Iceland has an unimaginably terrible naughty problem. Note that, official tourism site because Iceland softens the image of Grýla, who “can only catch misbehaving children, but those who repent must be released”, but I can find no other source to support this.

Fortunately, Grýla managed to find love – at least, marriage – on three separate occasions. The names of the first two were Gustur and Boli; legends vary as to whether they were eaten, killed, or died of old age (and who died in what way). She is currently married to the troll Leppaludi, who lazes away in his caves, while Gryla does all the baby-stealing and cooking. But they definitely have chemistry! The couple had 33 children, 13 of whom were known as the “Yule Lads”.

Yule Lads aren’t killers, thankfully, but they are creepy. Each of the 13 days leading up to Christmas, one of these brothers comes to people’s homes and does something unusually unpleasant. according to Iceland Travelthey have it too many evocative names. They are…

1) Sheep-Cote Clod (Stekkjastaur)

By December 12th, he would find the sheep and drink milk directly from their breasts.

2) Gully Gawk (Giljagaur)

On December 13, old Giljagaur would wait “for an opportunity to enter the cowshed to froth the fresh milk when the milkman looked.” Iceland Travel’s words, not mine.

3) Fat

Thankfully, not all of them are milk disorders. When Stúfur comes to town on December 14th, he wants scraps of pans.

4) Spoon Licking (Þvörusleikir)

Many Yule Lads enjoy cleaning dishes by hand. You can probably guess what ol’ Þvörusleikir will be up to on December 15th.

5) Pot Scraper (Pottasleikir)

Same, but for December 16.

6) Bowl Licker (Askasleikir)

These guys may seem benign, but they leave you with troll spittle all over the place. In any case, the bowl is licked on December 17.

7) Door knocker (Hurðaskellir)

On December 18th, your pots and pans are safe when Hurðaskellir comes to slam the doors obnoxiously in the middle of the night.

8) Skyr Gobbler (Skyrgámur)

With the doors slamming, the Yule Lads turn their attention to the food. On December 19, Skyr Gobbler steals people’s goods skyran Icelandic dairy product similar to yogurt.

9) Sausage Swiper (Bjúgnakrækir)

It’s pretty self-explanatory, and yes, it’s coming on December 20th. However, those sausages are lurking in the attics of your house while they wait to be swiped, and it seems unnecessarily creepy.

10) Window Watcher (Gluggagægir)

Despite the English meaning of the word “peeper,” ol’ Gluggagægir just peeks through windows to steal in on December 21st. If you happen to be standing naked in front of your window, it’s on you.

11) Door Sniffer (Gáttaşefur)

Easily the most annoyingly named Yule Lad on this list, Gáttashefur is actually one of the kindest—he stays outside until he shows up at your door on December 22 and smells like Christmas cookies.

12) Meat hook (Kjetkrókur)

And we’re back to stealing meat! On December 23rd, Gáttashefur crawls up to your fork and lowers his hook down your chimney, hoping to latch onto any meat hanging from the hook or cooking over the fire.

13) Candle Beggar (Kertasníkir)

Finally, Christmas Eve sees the arrival of Kertasníkir, who strangely wants to take out some of the candle.

Despite their particular fetish, Yule Lads will leave a small treat for children who leave their shoes on the windowsill – if they’re good. If they are naughty, they get a rotting potato, though they will be killed and eaten by Grýla before they have a chance to find it.

But Grýla isn’t the only killer who haunts Iceland at Christmas. He has a cat named Gryla Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, black as night and towering over houses, with a very unique appetite. It is said that he roams the town and will eat anyone who doesn’t get clothes for Christmas – not just children. Although the folklore of the Yule cat dates back centuries, it was popularized in Iceland in 1932 by Johannes ur Kötlum, who wrote a poem about it. This was later set to music, later tshe is the Icelandic pop star Bjork. Here is a part that seems to be the most popular, albeit literal, translation from a poem on the internet:

If a faint “meow” is heard outside

Then failure was sure to happen

Everyone knew that she hunted men

And the mouse did not want

I followed the poor

Who did not buy new clothes

Near Christmas – and tried and lived

Under the worst conditions

He took from them at the same time

All Christmas food

They ate them themselves

If he can

That’s why women competed

Rock, plant and rotate

And knitted colored clothes

Or some socks

Cruel, huh? Well, the silver lining is that the Yule Cat isn’t just a merciless killer of the poor, it’s a terrible reminder to give to those in need…so they don’t get killed by a cat. The poem continues:

I don’t know if it still exists

But nothing would be his trip

If only everyone had the next Christmas

A little new cloth

You may want to keep this in mind

To help if needed

Because there may be children somewhere

Who doesn’t buy anything at all

Perhaps he is looking for those who are suffering

Due to the lack of abundant lights

It will give you a happy season

And Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone! And sorry, Iceland.

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