If your mother was a fearsome ogress, your father a lazy ogre, and you lived in a cold and grimy cave up in the mountains, do you think you’d be very nice? Well, the Icelandic Yule Lads aren’t particularly. There are 13 of these troublesome brothers, each one arriving in one of the 13 nights before Christmas to wreak havoc in Icelandic homes. Fortunately, over time they seem to have picked up a few manners from visiting Icelandic homes and these days like to leave little presents in the shoes of nice children.
GRÝLA An awful ogress that eats naughty children. Why she hasn’t eaten her own unruly sons a long time ago is a riddle.
LEPPALÚÐI (Lappeylooder) Grýla’s good-for-nothing husband neither eats anyone nor gets into any kind of mischief. Obviously the black sheep of the family.
GLUGGAGÆGIR (Window Peeper) If you think you see an ugly face on your window, it’s probably this one. Just draw the curtains. He’s harmless.
ÞVÖRUSLEIKIR (Spoon Licker) There’s not a lot of food on spoons, so if you prefer to stick to spoon licking, you’ll end up just as thin as this brother.
GÁTTAÞEFUR (Doorway Sniffer) Having a huge nose comes in handy to sniff out food. Especially the Icelandic leaf bread made before Christmas.
BJÚGNAKRÆKIR (Sausage Swiper) Better keep an eye on your hot dogs and salamis. Except the vegan ones, perhaps.
POTTASLEIKIR (Pot Scraper) Hates food waste and likes to scrape pots and eat what sticks to the sides and bottom.
GILJAGAUR (Gully Gawk) Likes to hide in gullies and give people a fright when they pass by. BOO!
SKYRGÁMUR (Skyr Gobbler) This one can’t get enough of skyr. Well, skyr is a very healthy, Icelandic food. Have you tried it?
KERTASNÍKIR (Candle Beggar) Candles used to be made from fat in old times and were edible. What this funny fellow eats these days, we have no idea.
STÚFUR (Stubby) The tiniest brother has a big appetite. His favorite is stealing the crust off pans.
KJÖTKRÓKUR (Meat Hook) Smoked lamb is a delicacy eaten at Christmas in Iceland. Except of course if this brother has beat you to the larder.
HURÐASKELLIR (Door Slammer) SLAM! You think the wind did this? Think again. Door Slammer might be on the prowl.
JÓLAKÖTTURINN (The Yule Cat) Not a fluffy kitty you want to pet. It eats anyone that doesn’t get something new to wear for Christmas
ASKASLEIKIR (Bowl Licker) Notorious for stealing the wooden bowls Icelanders ate from in the old days. Today any old IKEA bowl will do.
STEKKJASTAUR (Sheep-Cote Clod) The first of the Yule Lads to come down from the mountains has a favorite pastime: Teasing sheep. Luckily for him, Iceland has lots.
Read more about the Yule Lads and how you can meet them on a trip to North Iceland.
Text by Sigríður Ásta Árnadóttir.
Illustrations by Björn Þór Björnsson.
This article appeared in Icelandair Stopover magazine, fall 2019.
Banner photo: Jólakötturinn (the Yule Cat, or Christmas Cat) illumination in downtown Reykjavík.