Icelandic Christmas Traditions (including Trolls and Cats)

Merry Christmas everyone! I’ve just come back from Iceland, visiting there for 4 nights and flying home Christmas Eve (a bit of a risk as I celebrate Christmas on the 24th so I’d have freaked out if my flight was delayed!).

I have my own weird amalgamation of British and Czech Christmas traditions, and I find it fascinating to hear about how other cultures celebrate perhaps the happiest holiday of the year.

Iceland has a really interesting one, and in the run up I was so intrigued to see how this northern country – with Reykjavik being the most northern capital in the world – would “do” Christmas.

They have a little story… involving trolls, of course, as so many Icelandic stories do. There’s a troll mum and dad, Grýla and Leppalúði, who live in the mountains. The children are called the Yule Lads, and they’ve come to resemble an Icelandic version of Santa Claus.

For the 13 days leading up to Christmas Eve, each night before bed, children will put one of their shoes on the windowsill and open the window a little bit (if it’s always as cold as it was in Iceland the past few days, I wouldn’t enjoy this part…). In the morning, they’ll either find a present in their shoe, or a rotten potato (or something equally as unpleasant or worse like getting eaten by troll mummy, Grýla), depending on how well behaved they’ve been. When a tour guide was telling me more about this, she felt the need to point out that children must use one of their own shoes, not mum or dad’s, and only one shoe; clearly her kids had some mischievous tricks up their sleeves!

So who puts these presents there? Well, this is where those Yule Lads I mentioned earlier come into play. There are 13 of them because for each night, a different one will visit – each with its own unique personality. They’re depicted in old clothing mostly, looking as though they cause some michief, although they’ve got more positive connotations now considering they’re compared with Father Christmas! I’ve started to think of them more in the Czech tradition sense, which has a bit of a darker/cheekier side to it rather than a benevolent fat man coasting down chimneys giving presents, consuming milk and cookies.

The names of the Yule Lads are really amusing and I love imagining the characters of each. Who’s your favourite?

Stekkjarstaur/Sheep-Cote Clod. Arrives 12 December.

– Harrasses sheep but has stiff peg-legs.

Giljagaur/Gully Gawk. Arrives 13 December.

– Hides in gullies, waiting to steal cow milk.

Stúfur/Stubby. Arrives 14 December.

– Really short.

Þvörusleikir/Spoon-Licker. Arrives 15 December.

– Really thin and licks wooden spoons.

Pottaskefill/Pot-Scraper. Arrives 16 December.

– Steals leftovers from pots.

Askasleikir/Bowl-Licker. Arrives 17 December.

– Hides under beds waiting for people to put down askur (a type of bowl) to steal.

Hurðaskellir/Door-Slammer. Arrives 18 December.

– Pretty self-explanatory… he slams doors.

Skyrgámur/Skyr-Gobbler. Arrives 19 December.

– The Icelandic traiditional version of strained yoghurt. It’s delicious and this Yule Lad particularly likes it.

Bjúgnakrækir/Sausage-Swiper. Arrives 20 December.

– Hides in rafters and steals sausages being cooked.

Gluggagægir/Window-Peeper. Arrives 21 December.

– Creepily looks into windows trying to find something to steal.

Gáttaþefur/Doorway-Sniffer. Arrives 22 December.

– Really large nose, with an acute sense of smell to laufabrauð, an Icelandic bread most common around Christmas.

Ketkrókur/Meat-Hook. Arrives 23 December.

– Uses a hook to steal meat.

Kertasníkir/Candle-Stealer. Arrives 24 December.

– Follows children to steal candles.

To top it off, there’s also the huge, mean Yule Cat, who resides in the Icelandic mountains and prowls around eating people who haven’t received new clothes before Christmas Eve.

Kind of weird stuff really, but funny and entertaining folklore. It’s always interesting to think about how these stories originated and I love the idea of children growing up with these tales so ingrained in their Christmas culture.

Do you have any other interesting Christmas cultures you know about?

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