Iceland's 13 Santas

Arts & Culture

The Yule-Lads started life as a kind of troll tale to scare kids from misbehaving....

Everybody knows Santa Claus started his life as Saint Nicholas, a Greek bishop famous for his generosity, before moving to the North Pole and spreading his joy to all the world. Everyone, that is, except Iceland, whose 13Santa Clauses (or Yule-Lads) started their life as prankster trolls before calming down and handing out presents from their home in Mt. Esja.

Nice or naughty santas?

The first historic records of the Yule-lads are from the 1600s, but back then they were a kind of “boogeymen” -troll tales to scare kids from misbehaving. In the beginning their number varied between nine and 13, until the middle of the 19th century, when the number 13 seems to have been settled. This is probably due to the 13 days of christmas, each of which has a particular yule-lad associated with it. The lads live in Mt. Esja outside Reykjavík with their parents, Grýla and Leppalúði - baby eating trolls who scare you into the Christmas spirit. The family pet is the Christmas Cat, who eats any child who doesn’t receive any clothes as a Christmas present. Now that’s some wholesome fun for the whole family! 

“A ‘Skyr Gobbler’ by any other name…?”

Each of the Lads have their own defining characteristic, as defined by their names. During our Lads’ troubled youth, these would describe just the kind of mischief the Lad would get up to.

There’s Stekkjastaur or Pole-legs, who harassed sheep, obstructed by his stiff legs, Giljagaur or Gully-Gawk, who hid in gullies for the opportune moment to steal the cream from milkmaids’ buckets, Stúfur or Stubby, who stole pans to eat the leftovers and Þvörusleikir or Spoon-Licker who would, you guessed it, lick your spoons. Then there is Pottaskefill or Pot-Scraper who ate the leftovers from pots, Askasleikir or Bowl-licker, Hurðaskellir or Door Slammer who kept people up at night by slamming doors and Skyrgámur or Skyr-gobbler, who broke in and ate their Skyr, which is a kind of Icelandic yogurt. Finally there are Bjúgnakrækir or Sausage-Swiper, Gluggagægjir or Window-Peeper (creepy), Gáttaþefur or Doorway-Sniffer who would use his gargantuan nose to locate your fried laufabrauð bread, Ketkrókur or Meat-Hook who was hooked on your meat and lastly Kertasnýkir or Candle-Beggar, who would steal away candles made of sheep fat, ostensibly to eat them.

...You know, come to think of it, maybe these guys were just originally just ancient, hungry hobos who went around swiping food on Christmas.

They’ve become more generous in recent years

These days little remains of the Lads’ mischievousness but the names. On the 13 days preceding Christmas day, the Yule-Lads arrive, one per day, and leave little presents in well-behaved children’s shoes, which are carefully arranged in the windowsill where they sleep. This is due to the fact that the geothermal and hydroelectric energy of Iceland renders chimneys all but non-existent, and apparently they don’t know how doors work. The naughty children, of course, get an uncooked potato as punishment, which is just a little bit confusing for children who like potatoes. After this, the Lads take off one by one for the 13 days following Christmas, the last one on the 6th of January, which is the last day of the holiday.

Sort of trollish, but kind

Today, the Lads are much different from before. They’re often seen donning the latest fashion of red-and-white Santa outfits, and can often be seen at public functions and Christmas parties, entertaining children, handing out mandarin oranges and little toys from the sacks on their shoulders. They are still trolls, and of course they don’t get out much, so they’re loud and forward and a bit rough around the edges, but the children love them regardless. At the typical Christmas dance, they’ll head up the singing of Christmas songs and then lead the procession of children and adults dancing hand in hand around the Christmas tree. If you're planning a trip in December, look out for them, be sure to say hello if you see them, and maybe you’ll get a mandarin orange for your trouble! Or you'll have your candles stolen... You never really know.