In Iceland, there isn’t just one Santa Claus; there are thirteen of them. That’s the good news if you are an Icelandic child. The bad news is that these jólasveinar (or jólasveinarnir) or “Yule Lads” are a pretty rowdy and unpredictable bunch—at least in the earliest accounts.
Like Santa, the Yule Lads reward good boys and girls with treats, which they slip into shoes that have been left on the windowsill. But they also distribute not-so-nice presents to children who have misbehaved, usually in the form of a raw or even rotten potato.
The depiction of the Yule Lads has varied over time and according to location. Their original role was to frighten children into behaving—in short, they were bogeymen. In the earliest accounts, they were mischievous or even criminal pranksters who would steal from or otherwise harass the population. Sometimes, they were simple pranksters. At other times, however, they were frightening child-eating monsters. In 1746, there was even a public decree issued to prohibit parents from frightening their children with stories about creatures such as the Yule Lads.
The Yule Lads are trolls—although that word is actually a bit fluid in the Scandinavian languages and is practically a generic term for any sort of fantastical humanoid creature. They are the sons of mountain-dwelling cannibalistic trolls (or ogres or giants) named Grýla and Leppalúdi (literally, “Hag” and “Ragamuffin”). They came down from the mountains to scare Icelandic children who misbehave.
The Yule Lads have become friendlier in the past century or so due to contact with American Santa Claus traditions. They have stopped being a terror to children, although they are still thieving mischief-makers. At the same time, they started bringing gifts for children and taken a more kindly attitude toward them. They have also largely traded in their original attire of ragged farmer’s clothes for red suits with white beards and black boots. Modern-day Yule Lads are funny old men with childlike minds and behavior.
The modern depiction of the Yule Lads owes much to a 1932 poem, “Jólasveinarnir” by Jóhannes úr Kötlum. Just as Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” established much of the contemporary American depiction of Santa Claus, “Jólasveinarnir” gives Icelanders their modern-day conception of the Yule Lads. The poem establishes their number at thirteen where before their number varied. It also gives them their traditional names, which all refer to the sort of mischief they are prone to making: Spoon-Licker, Door-Slammer, Sausage-Swiper, Window-Peeper, etc.
The Yule Lads come to town one by one in the days before Christmas, the first arriving on December 12 and the last on December 24. Then, on Christmas day, the first Yule Lad returns to the mountains, followed by the second on December 26, third on December 27, etc., until the last one leaves on January 6, bringing the Christmas season to a close.
The Yule Lads are often depicted with Grýla’s cat, also known as the Yule Cat (Jólakötturinn or Jólaköttur), a huge, vicious cat that lurks about the snowy countryside and eats children who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas. Some say farmers used the threat of the Yule Cat as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. Others claim, however, that new clothes were a reward for having been obedient and hardworking throughout the year. Lazy children didn’t get any, which means the Yule Cat can take them.