Okay, so maybe I have lied a bit. They’re not Santas, more like mischievous prankster sons of a child-eating ogress from up in the mountains… In my defense though, in the past couple of centuries they’ve gone from being dangerous, criminal and harassing trolls, to playful naughty imps who, one by one, leave kids a little something for thirteen days leading to Christmas Eve.
Honestly, it would have never occurred to me to ask about Christmas traditions in Iceland, I assumed they’d be similar to other European countries. Big mistake! Luckily for me, I stumbled across this beautiful old-fashioned store with Christmas toys and decorations in downtown Reykjavik. It was there that a Brazilian store assistant helped me discover the magical and folktale Icelandic traditions.
It’s actually just a couple of days ago that I learnt that Icelandic children don’t believe in our Christmas Eve/First day of Christmas presents bearing bearded man. They do get presents on Dec 24th, just like we do in Poland, but they know they’re being gifted by their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I guess having been visited by the Jólasveinarnir or Yuletide Lads (Yule’s the pagan name for a midwinter celebration that has turned into Christmas after the arrival of Christianity on the island, still used to describe the celebrations) for thirteen nights in a row is enough of magic and fairytale in an average six-year-olds’ life.
However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Remember their Jólasveinarnir’s mom, the ogress with a taste for kids? Her name’s Grýla and from what I’ve managed to learn, she’s quite a badass in the Icelandic folklore (present also in the Faroe islands, as well as in the Shetlands) and the earliest references to her go back all the way to the thirteenth century. Described as part troll and part animal, she’s ugly, with three husbands and – depending on the point in time you two get acquainted – eighty or thirteen kids. Oh, and she’s got a dreadful cat, jólaköttur, who will eat anybody who didn’t get a new piece of clothing before Christmas. Even today you’re supposed to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve, most probably stemming from the fact that back in the day, with very high rates of poverty, employers would give their employees a sort of a seasonal bonus in the form of a piece of woolen clothing.
How to ensure you get a present from the Yuletide Lads? Well, first of all you have to behave – otherwise instead of your favorite chocolate, you might find a rotten potato in your shoe. Second of all – you have to put a shoe up on your windowsill and leave it there till Christmas Eve. Both of those elements remind me of Polish customs: unless the kids act well, there’ll be a birch waiting for them under the Christmas tree; on the 6th of December we celebrate St. Nicholas Day and we wake up to find presents in our shoes.
Interestingly enough, it’s exactly this custom that brought in-shoe gift leaving Yuletide lads to Iceland. The first Icelanders to have come across it were 19th century seamen who sailed in the North Sea, calling at Dutch ports where the St. Nicholas day was celebrated the way we still do it back home. Seeing how – most conveniently – St. Nicholas is the protector of both Children and Seafarers, the custom was taken back home to Iceland. It took some time to spread around, so even though the first documented shoes in kids’ windowsills can be traced back to 1930s, it wasn’t until after the 2nd World War that it took the nation by storm.
So putting two and two together Icelanders ended up with: a centuries old Grýla whose name they still use to keep their kids in line (or she’ll come, steal them away and boil in her cauldron); her terrifying cat jólaköttur, who hunts down clotheless souls; and Jólasveinarnir, the strange mix of thirteen troll-imp-santas who are kinda good but not really. The whole bunch descends from the mountains every year and even though they no longer wreck hammock and terrorize people like they used to, the little gifts they leave are not enough to take the edge off the kids. From my conversations with some Icelanders it would seem their little ones get really scared of the Jólasveinarnir – even with their more humane and jolly imagery in the 21st century. So much so that parents might have to sit their children down and explain that the whole thing’s just a fairytale.
Another problem the whole celebrations still cause has to do with the size of the gifts kids receive from the Yuletide Lads. Kids being kids (or maybe more like humans being humans), they bring their gifts to school to show them off and compare with their friends. Seeing how everyone will have a different understanding of a ‘small gift’ (ranging from a tangerine to a cell phone) and a different financial status, the presents can vary a lot and cause grief, disappointment and discouragement. Kids come back home thinking they weren’t good enough in the past year or that their Jólasveinarnir don’t like them as much as they like the other kids. And it’s not a recent problem, either.
Already in the seventies it got so out of control that the Folk Custom Division of the National Museum got approached to help solve the situation. As a result, there was a nationwide awareness campaign on the public radio and in kindergartens educating parents how small the presents should be. Apparently to this day there’s a round of emails being sent out by teachers reminding adults not to go over the top and to keep in mind the effects that those discrepancies in gift seizes have on children and their emotional wellbeing.
All in all, I think it’s a great story that gets even better once you start reading about the historical, economical, religious and social background of how the customs came to be and when and how exactly they changed. If I sparked your interest, go ahead and do a Google search of your own and read some interviews with or articles by Árni Björnsson, who seems to be Iceland’s leading authority on folklore and Christmas traditions.
 In a loose translation, in the Shetlands she’s been described as follows: “Skekla (an ogress) rides into the homefield/ on a black horse with a white patch on its brow,/ with fifteen tails/ and fifteen children on each tail.” The connection between the above verses almost certainly goes back to before 1500, since after that time, Shetland’s direct connections with the Faroes and Iceland broke down (Jón Samsonarson 1975, 428; Smith 1978, 23-25; Manson 1983, 13-15).
 At the time there was another issue: the more affluent families took to the gift giving idea so much that some of them would
start treating their kids already on December 1st, causing even more trouble. Thus, it was vital to remind the parents that as there are only thirteen Yule Lads, kids shouldn’t be putting shoes in windows until the 12th of December.