With Christmas approaching, children around the world are waiting with huge anticipation for the arrival of Santa Claus to bring them presents. In Iceland, there is no Santa but thirteen Yule Lads (jólasveinar in Icelandic) instead.

The Yule Lads (jólasveinar) or Yule Men originate in old Icelandic folklore and have become some sort of a modern version of Santa, although their nature is quite different. In the old days, the jólasveinar were mean, menacing and malevolent, with each individual lad ranging from mere prankster to homicidal monsters who ate children, bearing very little similarity to the world-famous, good-hearted Santa Claus. On the contrary, their role was it to strike fear in the hearts of children. In 1746, authorities issued a law prohibiting parents from threating their children with the Yule Lads or their troll mother. In the course of time the characterization of the Yule Men has changed and they lost their menacing nature. Nowadays, the Yule Lads are portrayed as mischievous but very benevolent characters who appear to leave small gifts for children in their shoes the last thirteen nights before Christmas Eve. If a child has misbehaved, it receives a potato instead of a present. Generally, they are depicted wearing medieval style Icelandic clothing.

Throughout history, the jólasveinar appear in many different folk tales and stories under dozens of names. A poem about the thirteen Yule Men by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, which first appeared in 1932, became so popular that every Icelander today knows the verses by heart and it set standard. As mentioned above, they are said to visit people during the last thirteen nights before Christmas until they are all together on Christmas Eve. After spending two weeks among people, the jólasveinar make their way back home, one after another. Their names are according to their modus operandi.

The first Yule Lad to come to town is Stekkjastaur (“Sheep-Cote Clod”), who appears on December 12th and leaves on December 25th. Stekkjastaur unsettles the farm's sheep and tries to suckle the ewes. He is said to have stiff peg-legs:

The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer's sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn't; he had stiff knees
- not to convenient.

He is followed by his brother Giljagaur (“Gully Gawk”) who hides in gullies waiting for the right moment to sneak into the cow shed to slurp foamy cow milk from the milking buckets:

The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.

Stúfur (“Stubby”), who is very short, steals frying pans to scrape out roasted leftovers, his favorite food:

Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims - his favorites.

Þvörusleikir (“Spoon-Licker”) steals people's Þvörur, which is a certain type of wooden spoon with an extra long handle, to lick of leftover food. Due to this bad eating habit he is supposedly very skinny:

The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn't in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.

Pottaskefill (“Pot-Scraper”), the fifth Yule Lad to come to town, steals leftovers from pots:

Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he'd come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.

In the past, Icelanders ate from lidded wooden bowls called askur

which they sometimes kept under their beds or on the floor. Askasleikir (“Bowl-Licker”) hides under beds until somebody puts down their bowl in order to lick it out:

Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
- he was sure good at that!

Yule Lad number seven is Hurðaskellir (“Door-Slammer”) who's annoying habit is it to bang doors, preferably at night:

The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.

His brother Skyrgámur (“Skyr-Gobbler”) loves to nibble on skyr, an Icelandic dairy product similar to strained yoghurt:

Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
- his greed was well known -
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.

No sausage is safe from Bjúgnakrækir (“Sausage-Swiper”):

The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.

Gluggagægir (“Window-Peeper”) has the affinity to peep into windows looking for things he might steal later:

The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.

An abnormally big nose paired with an acute sense of smell are Gáttaþefur's (“Doorway-Sniffer”) traits while tracking down tasty laufabrauð (“leaf bread”), traditional Icelandic Christmas bread:

Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.

The theft of meat with a hook is Kettkrókur's (“Meat-Hook”) speciality. He lowers a a long hook down the chimney and snatches a piece of smoked lamb. Smoked lamb is the a traditional Icelandic Christmas dish:

Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak's Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meet of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.

The 13th and last of the Yule Lads is Kertasníkir (“Candle-Sneaker”), appearing on December 24th. Kertasníkir follows children around in order to steal their candles. In the old days, those candles were made of tallow and therefore edible:

The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
- ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.

According to folklore, the jólasveinar are the sons of Grýla, a monstrous giantess living in the mountains of Iceland. Every year around Christmas Grýla makes her way down to people's homes looking for naughty children. The myth of the horrifying troll woman has been haunting Icelanders for many centuries, as she is mentioned early on in the 13th century Edda. The very many different descriptions of Grýla have one thing in common: they are everything but flattering. Poet Jón Árnason, for example, described her as followed:

Grýla has three heads and three eyes in each head ... Horribly long, curved fingernails, icy blue eyes at the back of the head and horns like a goat, her ears dangle down to her shoulders and are attached to the nose in front. She has a beard on her chin that is like knotted yarn on a weave with tangles hanging from it, while her teeth are like burnt rocks in a grate.

Throughout time Icelandic children were told Grýla would come to get them if they were naughty. The threat of the ogress was serious and menacing as Grýla's favorite dish was, in fact, a stew of ill-mannered children. Even today parents still use Grýla to frighten their children. Traditionally, Grýla sets off looking for kids around Christmas time. When she comes across bad behaved or badly groomed children, she stuffes them into a bag and takes them with her to devour them later. The grisly troll woman is usually in company of her big, black cat. The so-called Christmas Cat or Yule Cat Jólakötturinn in Icelandic) has just like her owner an appetite for human flesh because she eats either lazy people who were not diligent enough to spin all the sheeps' wool before the winter or people who aren't dressed in clean and new clothes for Christmas, depending on the source. Bloodthirsty Grýla has been married three times. Her first marriage to a man named Gustur ended when she ate him. Grýla, her third husband Leppalúði, the Christmas Cat and the thirteen Yule Lads share a home in a cave in the area of Dimmuborgir, located in Northeast Iceland.
Dimmuborgir (“dark forts”) is a vast area of unusally shaped lava fields with a lot of volcanic caves. The dramatic looking site is one of Iceland's most popular tourist attractions.

Texts from the poem The Yuletide Lads by Jóhannes úr Kötlum. English translation by Hallberg Hallmundsson.