If you walk down Laugavegur, the main street in Reykjavik city centre, you might notice a Christmas shop open all year round with a huge red mailbox outside where you can send letters and get a reply from one of the 13 Icelandic Santa Clauses…. yes, that is right, Iceland has 13 Santas, but who are they, really?
The Yule Lads.
These 13 Icelandic Yule Lads, called “Jólasveinar” in Icelandic, could not be more different than the Santa Claus we all know.
If you visit Iceland during Christmas time and you want to meet the Yule Lads, you should take a private tour up north to Dimmuborgir, the Dark Fortress neat Myvatn, where you can find their cave hidden among lava formations.
The Yule Lads live here, with their troll parents, Grýla and Leppalúði, and their black cat, the Christmas Cat.
Their mother Grýla is quite a mean, big troll, who enjoys eating naughty children, whereas the Christmas Cat eats those who do not wear new items of clothes on Christmas day… so, if you are in Iceland on Christmas day, make sure you at least wear some new socks or the Cat might find you and well, your holiday might turn out not to be so pleasant.
What are the Yule Lads called?
With such a horrible mother, these 13 Yule Lads were originally very mischievous, they were always tricking kids all over Iceland and they got their names because of their naughty behavior.
Stekkjastaur, Sheep Cote Clod, loves harassing sheep;
Giljagaur, Gully Gawk, is known for hiding into the gullies waiting for his chance to steal some cow milk;
Stúfur, Stubby, steals pans and eats the crust out of them;
Þvörusleikir, Spoon Licker, steals wooden spoons to lick them;
Pottaskefill, Pot Scraper, eats leftovers out of stolen pots, not pans like Stubby;
Askasleikir, Bowl Licker, hides under your bed and waits for you to put your bowl down to steal it and probably lick it;
Hurðaskellir, Door Slammer, loves waking people up by slamming doors;
Skyrgámur, Skyr Gobbler, loves eating the famous Icelandic skyr;
Bjúgnakrækir, Sausage Swiper, steals the sausages while they are smoking;
Gluggagægir, Window Peeper, peeks through your window to find things he ca steal;
Gáttaþefur, Doorway Sniffer, can easily find Laufabrauð, an Icelandic traditional Christmas bread, thanks to his nose;
Ketkrókur, Meat Hook, uses a hook to steal meat;
Kertasníkir, Candle Beggar, steals candles from children.
What do the Yule Lads do today?
These Icelandic Santa Clauses were very naughty in the past but are now nicer to Icelandic children.
In the summertime, the Yule Lads hide and rest in their cave in Dimmuborgir, but during Christmas time, they come out of their cave and visit the Icelandic children giving them little presents. The first Yule Lad comes to town every year on December 12th , then the other bothers follow, one each day, until the evening of December 24th , where Icelanders celebrate Christmas with their families.
Kids leave a shoe by the window and every night they get a different present from each and every one of the Yule Lads if they have been good. If the kids have been naughty, they get a raw potato instead!
After Christmas, the Yule Lads go back to their cave in Dimmuborgir, one per day, in the same order as they have arrived. The last Yule Lad leaves on January 6th, day which officially ends the holiday season, when Icelanders throw bonfires and use up their leftover fireworks from New Year’s Eve.
If you visit Iceland over Christmas time, you might want to try and meet these mysterious creatures and if you have kids with you, remind them to leave a shoe by the window of your hotel, I am sure the Yule Lads will want to be nice to tourists, too.
If you want to experience a crazy display of fireworks, you should definitely consider spending New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik. Icelanders are crazy about fireworks and after their dinners with friends and families, they go out and light a crazy number of fireworks that you will see going in every direction and in every corner of the city around midnight…a crazy show you will not forget!