When we think of the holidays, we think of cheerfulness, merriment, and nothing scary. Well, if you find Santa Claus scary, then I don’t know what to tell you.
But not everyone thinks of the holidays as a positive time of year. Many see it as just another day of life, while others see the time as a season of painful memories and feelings. Others see it as a time to use fear tactics as a way to get children to behave better than usual.
You have Krampus and Frau Perchta, but do you recall the Icelandic legend of Grýla and her Yule Cat and Yule Lads?
Instead of Santa Claus coming to town, Icelanders are treated to mountain-dwelling monsters who come down for the holidays. What is endearing about this folktale is the fact that they all live together in a cave in the mountains, more specifically Dimmuborgir lava fields.
Yes, these Christmas monsters are a family, and they even have a house cat named Jólakötturinn that joins in on their reign of holiday terror.
Let’s start with Grýla, whose name loosely translates to “growler.” She is an ogress who has a rather large appetite for eating naughty children. That’s right, kids. If you’re naughty, you’ll get eaten by Grýla. She has this talent of detecting naughty children year-round, and it seems like she keeps a list so that when she comes down from the mountains, she knows who to find. She collects them in her large sack and carries them back to her cave. Then, cooks them in a large pot, making a “naughty children stew”, for which she has an insatiable appetite.
She has a husband named Leppaludi who is your typical TV-house husband who is depicted as lazy and doesn’t really leave the cave. Leppaludi is also Grýla’s third husband, which I thought was interesting. Apparently she ate her previous husbands after she became bored with them.
If you’ve been good, and you think you’re safe, think again. Remember that house cat I told you about? Maybe it’s actually a cave cat. Anyway, the Yule Cat, named Jólakötturinn, is Grýla’s kitty that roams the countryside during Yule and eats people who haven’t gotten new clothes before Christmas Eve.
Let’s not forget the kids! Grýla and Lappaludi have 13 sons known as the Yule Lads. First, I guess we know what Grýla and her husband were up to in the cave during the off-season. Second, the Yule Lads sounds like a name for a street gang of kids. On the 13 nights leading up to Christmas, the Yule Lads come into town one by one to bring about mischief, mayhem, pranks, and murder. Kids would leave their shoes on window sills, and the Yule Lads brought presents to leave in these shoes… if they were good. If the kids were naughty, the Yule Lads left a potato in their shoe. That’s not a terrible thing.
The legend of Grýla and her family date back centuries. The earliest mention of Grýla can be traced back to the 13th century in a compilation of Norse mythology called, Prose Edda. She is described as a giantess that is repulsive and hideous. Some other early depictions of Grýla have ranged from describing her as a beggar with parasites as well as a troll. What is creepy about her as a beggar is that she would go door-to-door asking parents to give her their naughty children. It wasn’t until the 17th century that she was associated with Christmas.
The earliest mention of the Yule Lads goes back to the 17th century in the poem called, “The Poem of Grýla.” In the most popular depictions, they were Grýla’s sons. In other versions, they were her brothers. Depending on where you were from, the Yule Lads did different things from harmless pranks to painting the town red…with blood. What is even more interesting is that the King of Denmark wasn’t a fan of using the Yule Lads as a method of scaring children into behaving. They weren’t formally named until 1862 when Jon Arnason, a 19th-century author, collected his own folktales after being inspired by the Grimm Brothers. The 1932 poem, The Yule Lads by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, became canon with their names and personalities because it was so popular. You can find it in the book, Christmas is Coming.
Now, where did the Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, come from? As if Grýla and her family weren’t terrifying enough, let’s add in a cat to make it extra scary. And this giant kitty judged you on whether or not you got new clothes by Christmas Eve. The earliest depiction of the Jólakötturinn is the 19th century. But why clothes? This was done by farmers to put pressure on their workers to finish processing the autumn before Christmas. If the workers finished, they were rewarded with new clothes. Those who didn’t finish got nothing. What is also interesting is that the idea of the Yule Cat being this giant, monstrous beast, was popularized by Jóhannes úr Kötlum. Other depictions included the Yule Cat merely eating the food of those who didn’t have new clothes, which is less dramatic.
To tie all of this up in a neat little bow, basically, you should behave yourself and make sure you have new clothes by Christmas Eve. Otherwise, you might get a visit from Grýla, her Yule Cat, and the Yule Lads. Oh yeah, don’t forget to leave your shoes on the window sill!