As the winter darkness increasingly makes its way into the arctic days and the first Christmas lights are up on the neighborhood houses, one knows that the seasonal holidays are just around a corner. Filled with warmth of candle lights, ginger bread and cinnamon aromas December month brings Christmas traditions and the joys of the Icelandic winter. One should not forget that in Iceland an indispensable part of the December mood is Santa Claus. Or thirteen of them actually.
The Icelandic Santa Clauses are not typical Santa Clauses per se. They have a long history in the Icelandic folklore and are called Yule Lads or jólasveinarnir in Icelandic. These lads pull pranks on people and bring gifts to children. Or potatoes to the misbehaved ones. Their distinctive names define their character and they have become a neatly weaved-in element into various domains of the Icelandic life during the winter months; you find them on milk packaging in the stores or can see their projections on walls while strolling along the streets of downtown Reykjavik.
The exciting part is that jólasveinarnir are not entirely fictional. You can meet them in person! Out there in the Icelandic countryside. And this is where the adventures begin…
Dimmuborgir. Photo by Edvardas Paskevicius
Banner image: Dimmuborgir. Photo by Marcin Kozaczek
…It was our third day up in the north capital of Iceland – Akureyri. Having spent two days skiing on the slopes of Hlíðarfjall mountain we decided to go on a spontaneous road trip and explore the nature wonders in the surrounding areas of Akureyri. Without having decided the specifics of our route we leave the town with a few sightseeing spots on our minds and wanderlust in our hearts. We had no idea what adventures the end of this day might bring.
After seeing the magnificent Goðafoss waterfall, Grjótagjá cave and many other breathtaking sights in the Mývant area our final stop of the day happened to be Dimmuborgir – a unique area full of dramatic lava formations. Not only is it famous for various rock formations, volcanic caves and pillars or the fact that certain Game of Thrones season 3 scenes were shot here but, being all that, it is as well home for the Icelandic Yule Lads, jólasveinarnir. Without having the last point in mind, we strolled into Dimmuborgir - the fascinating lava labyrinth - trying to make use of the golden hour and capture some great camera shots before it got dark. You can’t stop admiring the shapes and forms that surround you.
Crisp, fresh snowflakes, my jolly frolicking friend in her red and green outdoor gear, us sipping the last cups of coffee from our thermos. The atmosphere seemed idyllic, nothing was missing. Or at least we thought so.
“Is that a caveman?” suddenly I hear astonishment in my friend’s voice.
“This must be one of the Yule Lads” dawned upon me after I saw him.
And it really was. A funny looking person was slowly making his way towards us.
Taken away by the fact that we’ve just met a real Yule Lad in its natural habitat we were short in words. This encounter was unexpected and felt very authentic, to say the least. “The caveman” was glad to pose for a picture but stayed true to his character; unacted and a little unearthly. Seeming rather preoccupied with his yule-errands he didn’t stick around for long and continued to stumble along his path in between those bizarre rocks soon disappearing into the vastness of the area.
I’m guessing that we met Stúfur. He is the third of the thirteen Yule Lads and the one who “comes to town” on 14th December. Stúfur, or Stubby translated to English, steals pans and eats food leftovers burned on them. Yes, that’s what he does.
And just like that our day was complete. It felt ideal, in deed. On our way back, we were contemplating about the rest of the jólasveinarnir and where we might meet the next one. Or perhaps all thirteen of them...?
You can plan a visit to Dimmuborgir in advance and be sure that you and your children will meet the Icelandic Yule Lads. Dimmuborgir is a bit over an hour’s drive eastward from Akureyri, the north capital of Iceland which is easily reached with Air Iceland Connect that operates domestic flights between Reykjavik and Akureyri several times a day.
Dimmuborgir. Photo by Marcin Kozaczek
Text by Edvardas Paskevicius