I know you are all dying to learn about Icelandic Christmas traditions so today I’m here to tell you all about the Icelandic version of Santa Claus!
Unlike the Santa Claus that I grew up with, these yule lads are not jolly with a big belly. No reindeer-drawn sleigh, no red suit, and no chimney.
Yule lads are 13 brothers from a family of trolls who live in the highlands of Iceland. They all have different characteristics that set them apart. They live with their mother Grýla and have a raggedy cat named Jólakötturinn.
The Yule lads travel long distances across the snowy Icelandic mountains to visit children in the 13 nights leading up to Christmas.
Instead of cookies and milk, Icelandic children will leave the lads’ favorite snack (each one is different – see below).
Icelandic children look forward to this tradition by leaving a shoe (no stockings here!) in their window to receive a small present.
You read that right – parents of these Icelandic children have to have THIRTEEN presents prepared for their kids THIRTEEN days before Christmas! No last minute shopping!
If they were good that year, they get a regular gift. If they were bad, they get a potato!
Arrives: December 12
He is the oldest brother and first to visit. Since he is the oldest, he has to leave several days before to make the long journey. His legs have become creaky and stiff in his old age – if you listen closely you could hear his knees creaking!
Favorite treats: Christmas cookies and milk
Personality: kind and clever, stubborn
Arrives: December 13
Biggest, tallest, strongest of the brothers and is not affected by the weather or the rough Icelandic terrain. He is shy and likes to travel undercover. He takes care of the Christmas Cat, making sure he gets enough to eat so he doesn’t become hungry and eat the children!
Favorite treats: Meat, sweets, milk
Personality: clumsy and not very bright, loves children and animals
Arrives: December 14
Smallest of the brothers but also the most charming. If there has been heavy snow recently, he travels with a shovel in case he has to dig through snowdrifts. It’s important to leave a small chair next to the window to help him reach the shoe and to give him a rest before continuing on.
Favorite treats: Skyr, biscuits, cheese, meat
Personality: big heart and bright personality
Arrives: December 15
Growing up in a house with 13 brothers can be tough to stay fed! So Pottasleiker learned to get to the pots and pans first to get any leftover scraps. He also won’t resist an unwashed pot of soup while going house to house!
Favorite treats: Cookies, milk, sweets
Personality: quick-witted and single-minded
Arrives: December 16
Þvörusleikir used to suck on his thumb as a young boy. Gryla would scold him to stop, so he switched to sucking on wooden spoons instead. He especially likes spoons that have been covered in cake mix or chocolate sauce.
Favorite treats: Vegetables, milk, spoons
Personality: dopey, kind, understanding
Arrives: December 17
Askasleiker gets his name from his habit of licking out the food remains of an askur. An askur is a bowl to keep food warm. He hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their askur – or he would happily accept a tub of skyr.
Favorite treats: skyr, cookies, milk
Personality: quiet, happy
Arrives: December 18
He loves the sound of slamming doors, especially when his mother isn’t around to scold him! He doesn’t mean to startle the young children, he just thinks it’s fun.
Favorite treat: cheese, meat, milk
Personality: mischievous, silly
Arrives: December 19
Skyrgámur is old-fashioned and doesn’t like things to change. He complains about things nowadays not being as good as they were in the past – especially the skyr. He loves to slide down mountains on his way into town!
Favorite treat: skyr, cheese, milk
Personality: confused – you never know what you will get in your shoe!
Arrives: December 20
Gryla would always make bjúga, or sausage, made of all fat and no meat. The brothers hated it, but Bjúgnakrækir would gladly eat this delicious food. He is known for hiding in the rafters and snatching sausages that are being smoked.
Favorite treat: meat, cheese, cookies
Personality: light-hearted, joker
Arrives: December 21
The cave that the brothers live in has grey stone walls lit with a few candles – it is very boring. When Gluggagægir comes into town he loves to gaze into families windows at the bright colors and patterns, he thinks they are so beautiful!
Favorite treat: Pancakes, milk
Personality: art lover
Arrives: December 22
Has an abnormally large nose which allows him to locate scraps of food that have been dropped on the ground. His nose doesn’t stop at good smelling things, he can’t stand things that smell bad so make sure your room is tidy of worn socks before you go to bed!
Favorite treats: cookies, laufabrauð, sweets
Personality: cheerful, good company
Arrives: December 23
When Ketkrókur was born he was the smallest child so Gryla fed him only meat to build him up. Now he has a great love for meat and refuses to eat vegetables. He uses a hook to steal meat of any kind.
Favorite treats: meat, meat, meat!
Personality: big and noisy
Arrives: December 24
In the old days, candles used to be made from tallow – a rendered animal fat, which made them edible! This was a nice treat for someone who had just traveled hundreds of miles in the winter landscape! Look for teeth marks on your candles, Kertasníkir sometimes likes to make sure he isn’t missing out on any tallow!
Favorite treat: candles, meat, cookies
Personality: mischievous, friendly
Now although these lads can look a bit frightening, its really Grýla and Jólakötturinn that you have to worry about! As legend has it, both like to eat humans, especially children if they were not good that year.
Grýla comes down from the mountains in search of naughty children to boil them into soup. Old Icelandic folklore states that every Icelander must receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas or Jólakötturinn eats anyone who doesn’t follow this rule.
I like this tradition, and my husband and I have loosley adopted the leave-a-shoe-by-the-window thing with some small gifts! Don’t forget – the Yule lads start December 12th!
I wish everyone a Gleðileg jól (Merry Christmas)! Whatever your Christmas tradition, I hope you have fun celebrating all of the fun things to do this season.