Karen Bayly

Author and Copywriter

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Yule Lads and Christmas Cats

It will soon be Christmas. I find it difficult to feel Christmassy these days. It’s so hot in Australia in summer with temperatures up 40 °C (104 °F) and beyond. Most houses and apartments do not have air conditioning, and celebrating in sweltering heat is not my idea of fun. Indeed, it’s not most people’s idea of fun.

I’ve always envied those who live in snowy climes. A white Christmas seems so romantic to me and experiencing one is on my bucket list. The place I’d most like to spend Christmas in Iceland. You’re almost guaranteed a white Christmas. December is the darkest time of the year in Iceland so there’s also the strong possibility you’ll be able to see the glorious Northern Lights.

Photo from Regent Holidays UK

Not only is it a fascinating place, but they have incredible Christmas traditions. The ‘official’ Christmas celebration takes place at 6:00 pm on Christmas Eve when Icelanders eat a huge home-cooked dinner then open their gifts.

Every Icelander typically receives at least one book as a gift each year.  In fact, we could rename Iceland “Bookland” as it publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world. The bulk of book sales happen in the two months leading up to Christmas.

And then there are these guys...

The thirteen Yule Lads

Christmas in Iceland lasts for 26 days, and during this time a troupe of trolls visit Icelanders. These are the thirteen Yule Lads, each with their own definitive mischief-making character. They live in a cave in a secret location in the mountains with their mother, the terrifying Grýla, her do-nothing husband, Leppalúði, and the Christmas Cat, Jólakötturinn.

Photo by ????. I couldn’t find a credit for this image but I love how the lads
are having fun, plus the ptarmigan in the bottom right corner is a bonus.

The lads are:

  1. Stekkjarstaur, or Sheep-Cote Clod, breaks into the sheep pens and tries to steal milk from the ewes. However, his two peg legs make it difficult for him to get into the pens.
  2. Giljagaur, also known as Gully Gawk, hides and waits for the chance to steal milk from cowsheds.
  3. Stúfur is short and stubby. He loves to eat burnt bits of food that get stuck to pans.
  4. Þvörusleikir is tall and skinny. His name means “Spoon licker”, and that is what he does when no-one is looking.
  5. Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper) steals leftovers by knocking at the door, then stealing food from the pots when the inhabitants rush to see who it is.
  6. Askasleikir (Bowl Licker) licks bowls.
  7. Hurðaskellir (Door Slammer) likes to slam doors. He thinks this is amusing.
  8. Skyrgámur loves eating skyr, a yummy Icelandic yoghurt. We get skyr in Australia but I’m not sure how authentic it is.
  9. Bjúgnakrækir, or Sausage Swiper, crawls through soot and smoke to steal salty, smoked Icelandic sausages.
  10. Gluggagægir, the Window-Peeper, peers through windows looking for food to steal.
  11. Gáttaþefur has a large nose and a good sense of smell. He stands at doorways and sniffs out bread, especially laufabrauð (see image below).
  12. Ketkrókur, or Meat-Hook, uses with a long stick with a hook at the end, which he sticks down chimneys to steal meat.
  13. Kertasníkir name means Candle-Stealer. He likes stealing candles from children.


Jólakötturinn — the Christmas Cat

According to Icelandic tradition, anyone who finished their chores before Christmas would get an item of clothing as a reward. Meanwhile, lazy children (and adults) who didn’t get their work done would have to face Jólakötturinn. It’s an enormous black cat that prowls Iceland on Christmas Eve.

Original image by Peter Francis Fahy

It peers into windows to see if there are clothes among the presents for each child (or adult). If so, it moves on. If not, it eats the child (or adult). So be grateful for socks, underpants, ugly Christmas jumpers or kitschy t-shirts.


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