Christmas fairy tale of Iceland: The Yule Lads

A big portion of my Christmas decorations consists of Santa Clauses. I have a very strong connection to the country of the Santa Clauses in the Fairy Tale Dimension and that explains why I am such a big fan of the red and white clad figures. I am not the only fan of this country. Thousands of movies, books and songs about Santas attest to the love for this fairy tale country we have. The Santa country is one of the biggest and most divers fairy tale countries in the Fairy Tale Dimension. Hundreds of different Santa Claus stories are played there.

The Christian Santa Claus

A lot of different pagan rituals and stories around the winter solstice were absorbed by Christianity over the centuries. The Christian Santa figure got his name from Saint Nicholas, He lived in the Roman Empire in the fourth century and he was a bishop who was famous for his miracles. Originally from a wealthy family he distributed his wealth to the poor. He set the example and sharing and helping that have been a big part of our Christian Christmas traditions ever since.

The Santas living in the fairy tale dimension are not always the benevolent present distributors I am so fond of. Today I want to introduce you to some pretty scary Santas who are trolls. They are part of the Iceland Christmas traditions.

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Life in Iceland used to be very hard

Until the twentieth century life in Iceland was very harsh and the people were very poor. The hundreds of years old Icelandic sagas mirror the adverse environment in which Icelanders had to fight hard for survival. Only a limited variety of food grew in the cold climate and people relied mainly on fish and sheep for food. Hunger was common.

Perhaps because of this history Iceland has the most hair-raising Christmas creatures I have heard of. The Icelandic Santa Clause family: The Yule Lads (jólasveinar in Icelandic) and their parents.

The 13 Icelandic Santas are living in a family

According to different legends The Icelandic Yule Lads live either in the highlands in the middle of Iceland or in the Dimmuborgir region in the north near lake Mývatn with their troll parents Grýla and Leppalúði and their pet-beast the Christmas Cat. There are historical records of up to 70 Yule Lads, but only 13 Yule lads have survived until today. Even though they are not as bad as their parents, they have very bad manners. Considering who raised them this is no wonder.

The parents of Yule Lads in Iceland 

Grýla – the mother – is a big troll. She looks rather intimidating and is reported to have a tail and multiple heads. As trolls are often cannibals she likes human meat and hunts for misbehaving children in the Christmas season, whom she cooks in a large pot to make stew. There seems to be no shortage of food because she is always depicted as being very well nourished.

Leppalúði is Gryla´s third husband and the father of the 13 Yule lads. He is said to be a quite useless chap. This dumb skinny troll does whatever Grýla commands him to do. He helps her to catch naughty kids for her stew and carries them home in his big sack.

The Christmas Cat

As if the parents are not frightful enough, there is also the scary Christmas Cat (Jólakötturinn) to evade during the Christmas season. This giant black cat shares Grýla´s taste for humans. She is rumoured to devour everybody who does not receive a new piece of clothing before Christmas. So if you don’t want your loved ones to be eaten by this giant troll cat, you better give them at least a pair of new socks or a scarf. 

In 1932 Jóhannes úr Kötlum wrote the still popular poetry book about the Yule Lads. There he gives descriptions of each of the 13 Christmas trolls and describes their comings and goings. Some Icelanders still know it by heart. Hallberg Hallmundsson translated this long poem in English.

The Christmas Season in Iceland

The Icelandic Christmas season lasts for 26 days, from the 11th of December until the 6th of January. It starts when the first Yule Lad arrives 13 days before Christmas Eve and finishes when the last one of them leaves on the 6th of January. They arrive singly until Christmas Eve and then leave in the same order starting on Christmas Day one by one to head home again not to be seen until next season.

The 13 Yule Lads of Iceland

The Icelandic troll Santa Clauses get their peculiar names after their individual characteristics. They are skinny because they are always hungry. Their mother  does not seem to feed them well. These guys are troublemakers who steal food and play tricks on people. This is why the Icelanders have to look well after their food during the Christmas season.

Besides being a nuisance and stealing food the Yule Lads are also ugly and pretty stupid. Here are the descriptions of each Yule Lad in order of the night he visits:

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Illustration by Hugleikur Dagsson

1. Sheep-Cote Clod (Stekkjarstaur)

He has two wooden legs, which make him slow to move. He likes to harass the sheep that have been brought in for the winter. In Icelandic farms the barn used to be part of the house so that the sheep running around in panic could easily be heard.

2. Gully-Gawk (Giljagaur)

He hides in gullies looking for a chance to steal milk from the cows when the farmers do not pay attention.

3. Stubby (Stúfur)

As his name suggests he is very short. He tries to steal pans that have food dried on them because he loves to eat the crusts.

4. Spoon-Licker (Þvörusleikir)

He is abnormally tall and thin as a rake because he is only eating by licking spoons clean. He prefers the long-handled ones that are used for stirring in big pots.

5. Pot-Scraper (Pottaskefill)

steals pots to eat the leftovers. To get to the pots he likes to trick children to make them think that someone is at the door and when they run to see who it is he sneaks in and snatches the pots.

6. Bowl-Licker (Askasleikir)

When the Bowl-Licker is in the house you can find him lurking under the bed. There he waits until somebody puts a bowl with food on the floor, which was happening a lot in the old days because beds were also used as chairs and there were not many tables. Then he reaches out from under the bed, steals the bowl and eats everything in it.

7. Door-Slammer (Hurðaskellir)

is a really annoying lad. True to his name he likes slamming doors loudly, preferably at night. When you have just drifted off to sleep he wakes you up with slamming another door.

8. Skyr-Gobbler (Skyrgármur)

When he has been visiting you can easily tell because he leaves his finger marks all over the skyr. He is also a very messy eater so that you have to clean up a lot after him. Skyr is a delicious Icelandic dairy product. Everybody tries to copy it nowadays but in my opinion nobody succeeds in making it taste as good as the Icelanders do.

9. Sausage –Swiper (Bjúgnakrækir)

He hides in the rafts under the roof and raids food from sitting up on a crossbeam. At the first chance he gets he snatches and gobbles up every sausage he can find.

10. Window-Peeper (Gluggagægir)

He is one of the more creepy Yule lads. With his enormous eyes he peers through the windows and steals everything he can see and get his hands on. This makes him perhaps the worst thief of the group.

11. Doorway-Sniffer (Gáttaþefur)

With his huge nose he can make out delicious Christmas treats from far away. He sneaks around outside of Icelandic houses and hopes that someone forgets to close the door so he can get inside to steal the food.

12. Meet-Hook (Ketkrókur)

This Yule lad steals meat by lowering a hook through the chimney. He uses the hook to grab smoked meat that is hanging from the rafts. Luckily his hook is often too short to reach everything.

13. Candle-Stealer (Kertasníkir)

He sneaks up on the children who run around the farm at night with their tallow lights to steal them. These candles were made of fat and he did not want them because of their light but to eat them.

When Christmas is finally there

the Icelandic farmers have a lot of their food stolen and are probably hungry. They are also tired from waking up several times a night, spooked because of strange sounds coming from the doors, sheep pens, the roof or the stables. They wonder why they cannot find any candles. Still they are lucky not to have been eaten by either Grýla or her cat.

You see that the Christmas season in Iceland used to be a very scary part of the year. The sun only managed to creep over the horizon for about 4 hours and people imagined all kinds of ghosts lurking outside.

Only ghosts were said to knock on doors at night. In the old days if a visitor came in the dark he went to the window and said: Here is God (Hér sé guð) to distinguish himself from the dangerous beings lurking outside.

The Icelandic Santa Clauses today

The fairy tale of the 13 Icelandic Yule lads, their parents and pet makes me glad that I grew up with stories of benevolent fat red clad Santa Clauses. I feel sorry for the Icelandic children who have been raised with tales of these intimidating dangerous creatures over the centuries.

The old stories are still very much alive today in Iceland and you can meet Icelandic Yule Lads at Christmas parties, in schools and pre-schools. Nowadays these lads have softened up though. The Icelandic Santas have even started to leave presents for children in their shoes if they put them in the windows.

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How do you feel about the Icelandic Yule Lads? What kind of Santa Clause is your favourite? Please share!

 

Pictures: private and Hugleikur Dagsson

© Inge Schumacher

 

 

 

 

 

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My 6 tips for a relaxed Christmas

Christmas is not for wimps.

At no other time of the year expectations are so high and are disappointed so easily. Media and advertisements dazzle us with pictures of peace and bliss: In soft candle light a big family is sitting happily around a big table and exchanges gifts that everybody is crazy about. (You can read this article in German here.)

Even though I am very much aware of these manipulations I still catch myself succumbing to them.

How plausible is it that a big group of people, who don´t meet very often will understand each other blindly?

Reality-Check: Are you clear about your expectations for Christmas?

My own experiences

When I was a child there was always stress and conflict on Christmas. My mother, left alone with all the preparations was totally exhausted by Christmas Eve. My father did not feel responsible for either household chores or Christmas arrangements.

We 4 kids were so excited that we were probably quite a handful. I was the oldest and I felt responsible for keeping the peace, which was more than I could handle, of course. This was probably the reason for my growing apprehension. When I moved out I avoided spending Christmas at home.

Since then I have been working on making Christmas less stressful for me.

I have known my husband for almost 30 years now and we have had children for 18 years. This means that I had lots of time to practise. It was a long learning process.

Here I share 6 tips for a more tranquil Christmas:

1. Be mindful in the pre-Christmas period

It is not a good idea to exhaust yourself by the Christmas preparations. When I have a busy work schedule I bake less Christmas cookies and our house is less orderly. Every year I used to pack 24 little gifts for the advent calendar of my three children. This year we agreed on pre-manufactured ones and this saved lots of time and energy.

I also cut back on volunteering in December. I do not stop everything, but I don´t feel responsible for baking at the school any more, for example. I see this as a good investment for me in a more relaxed Christmas season.

2. Less presents can be a good idea

I have very good experiences with cutting back on presents for friends and my extended family. The adults in our families – my husband and I have 3 siblings – have been skipping presents for a long time. Before we had children we rented a house in Denmark instead, which was very relaxing.

Since I don´t like to go shopping I have a list with ideas for Christmas presents that I add to during the year. Last minute Christmas shopping is nothing for me and I try to avoid that.

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Last year working on several Advent wreaths.

3. Communication, communication, communication

The most important thing for me is to get to know the individual expectations of everybody who participates in my Christmas: Children, parents, grandparents, siblings or friends.

Who expects what and which expectations do we want to meet? It is not as easy as one might think to uncover the true expectations of everybody involved. Often you will get vague answers: “Oh, you know…” but this is not helpful. To express oneself clearly helps both the listener and the talker.

When people don´t communicate openly and say: “I am okay with everything” even though this is not true, there will be problems. My mother-in-law always had a hard time to clearly state her wishes and this way she was sometimes disappointed.

Achieving transparency about the individual expectations is a process that takes time. But it is very much worth it. In my experience the more transparency we generate the less conflicts we have at Christmas.

4. Reflection

When we have children it is particularly important to be as clear as possible about our own wishes. Here are some questions that can help:

  • Which values do we have and which ones do we want to live?
  • What are our goals this Christmas and what do we want to avoid?
  • What did we enjoy in previous years and what do we want to repeat?
  • What are Christmas rituals that are important to us and do they still fit?
  • Set clear priorities: What is most important for us? (For me it is stress-reduction.)

Recognising and getting rid of obsolete automatisms

Especially at Christmas time we tend to stick to traditions because we somehow feel as if our Christmas would die when we change something. This is nonsense of course; there are much more possibilities than we are aware of.

In Germany we have a Christmas tradition to eat goose on Christmas day. Just like the Thanksgiving turkey in the States the preparations are time-consuming. Luckily there are alternatives to cooking your own goose now: They can either eat out or order goose-to-go.

To have creative ideas and new solutions we have to be open for new possibilities. We need to be aware that we are running on autopilot mode even more at Christmas time than on other occasions.

When I am feeling stressed about something I do creative sessions with my husband where we evaluate alternative ways to reach my goal together.

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5. Planning

My Christmas holidays profit from structure. The more persons are involved the more a plan can help. This plan should include lots of free spaces and breathing room to prevent pressure building up because of a tight schedule.

Free space in the Christmas plan is most important.

How detailed you plan for the holidays depends on you. Here are some ideas:

  • Prepare a rough approximate timetable (make sure to include enough breathing space).
  • Create a general overview: Who is where when?
  • Make a meal-plan: Who is responsible for what and what can be prepared ahead of time? This food-plan relaxes me a lot.
  • Include time for individual or joint breaks: Watch a film, go for a walk or play together.

I have learned that Christmas is not the right time for experiments. Things we are used to doing feel comfortable to us. Playing board games when you never do this is not a good idea.

Children need breathing room

Small children have short attention spans and cannot occupy themselves for a long time. I advise against planning an elaborate meal that gives children too little space. When my children are happy and relaxed, so am I.

Big children can be included in the preparations and take responsibility for some chores. My children even enjoy to help at Christmas time, probably because they don´t enjoy a stressed-out mother! For me as the head planner it is important to be as clear as possible when delegating.

6. You are responsible for yourself

Everybody is responsible for creating the conditions they feel well in. It is not possible to delegate this. This is especially true at Christmas time where people tend to create extremes more easily and may suddenly find themselves in explosive situations.

My kids often realise before I do when I start to get agitated and ask me: What is the matter, Mom? I am thankful for this warning that enables me to become aware and react.

What is good for you at Christmas time?

  • When you need a time-out it is okay to skip Christmas altogether.
  • Dare to change old structures when they are a burden for you.
  • Include family and participants early on in the Christmas preparations. Beware that you have to live with other people doing stuff differently from you, which is a good exercise in acceptance.
  • Do you really have to invite relatives who are annoying just because they are family?
  • Very important: You are not responsible for what others think of you.

When the situation is escalating:

  • Get help bringing down your stress level.
  • Note your stress triggers and get back to them after the holidays.
  • Don´t expect easy Christmas holidays only because you changed some things.

Christmas time is always a good test for me that shows how much progress I have made in my personal development.

My offer for a more relaxed Christmas season:

Especially at Christmastime issues we are working on will pop up. Don´t hesitate to ask for help. I offer special energy-coachings before Christmas.

Pictures: private

© Inge Schumacher

 Book-tip: Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg