Other supernatural beings that appear at Christmas
Grýla and Leppalúði
Without a doubt, the most hideous ogres that ever existed in Iceland are the Yule Lads' parents – particularly their mother, Grýla. Not only are they descended from trolls, they also present an overwhelming threat to children. Unlike their sons, they have changed little in this respect over the course of the centuries. To this day they are used to frighten children, and those children know as well as they ever did that Grýla likes nothing better than feasting on naughty children. In the folk tales of Jón Árnason, the description of Grýla is not exactly flattering:
“Grýla has three heads and three eyes in each head ... Horribly long, curved fingernails, icy blue eyes at the back of the head and horns like a goat, her ears dangle down to her shoulders and are attached to the nose in front. She has a beard on her chin that is like knotted yarn on a weave with tangles hanging from it, while her teeth are like burnt rocks in a grate.”
Not many people would want to encounter the fiend described above! Judging by this description, it is it any wonder that Grýla strikes fear in the hearts of small children?
Grýla the ogress has been a part of Icelandic mythology for a very long time. Documentation about her goes all the way back to the 13th Century. In a verse from Sturlunga saga, Grýla is described as a monster with 15 tails. A similar description may be found in a poem from the 16th Century; however, that version takes the description further by claiming that each tail contains 100 sacks, and each of those sacks 20 children. So as early as the 16th century Grýla was documented as being a serious menace to children – and she still is. A greater number of poems about Grýla and her riff-raff were preserved in subsequent centuries, especially the 17th and 18th Centuries, and Grýla was first linked to Christmas around that time. Sources say she came to town shortly before Christmas in search of naughty children and frequently wound up in extensive debates with the heads of the various households, who naturally wished to protect their children from this horrific ogress. In these poems Grýla is described as being just as hideous as in Jón Árnason's folk tales.
Though most documentation about Grýla focuses on her hideous appearance and threat to children, some also deals with her love life. According to some sources, Grýla has been married three times. Her first husband was named Gustur, but that marriage did not last since Grýla reportedly ate him. She subsequently took a husband by the name of Boli, with whom she had a number of children. Meanwhile, Grýla's present husband, Leppalúði, is familiar to most people, and he is generally nearby when Grýla appears. The pair of them are said to have produced 20 children, of which 13 are the popular Yule Lads.
Even though Grýla is still actively used to frighten children, some sources maintain that she is dead. This information pops up in various popular Christmas songs and, unsurprisingly, not many people mourn Grýla's demise. Some of the songs, however, contain provisions that she could come back to life if the number of naughty children increases. All of which is to say that Grýla and Leppalúði are still used to frighten children into behaving, even from beyond the grave. There is just no knowing what will happen with ogresses like Grýla, and all children are advised to be on their best behaviour, just in case.
The Yule Cat
The Yule Cat is yet another Icelandic Christmas fiend. Some say it is the house cat of Grýla and Leppalúði and that it lives with them in their cave, although this seems to be a rather recent development. The origins of the Yule Cat are shrouded in mystery, though it bears some resemblance to mythical animal beings that appear during Advent in Iceland's neighbouring countries. Of those, it probably bears the greatest resemblance to the Nordic Christmas Buck. Both keep a close eye on people during the Advent and prey on anyone who does not receive a new item of clothing for Christmas. In Scandinavia people have been known to dress up like the Christmas Buck in games, and some people wonder whether something similar has taken place in Iceland – that is, people dressing in Yule Cat costumes. There is no documentation to indicate this, but since the state of not receiving new clothes for Christmas has sometimes been referred to as “dressing the (Yule) Cat”, it is possible that, at some point, this was taken quite literally. The Icelanders also refer to it as að fara í Jólaköttinn, literally “to end up in the Yule Cat”, the common interpretation being that the Yule Cat will eat those who do not receive any new clothing at Christmas. Yet some people favour a slightly more benign interpretation: that the Yule Cat will eat the food of anyone who does not receive a new item of clothing for Christmas.
Even to this day, many people consider receiving new clothing for Christmas to be of extreme importance. It is common for people to dress in new clothing from head to toe on Christmas Eve. Some sources suggest that female farm workers in the old days worked extremely hard to produce one item of clothing after another during Advent, all in an effort to save the farm folk from the claws of the Yule Cat. It is likely that the Yule Cat myth was originally designed to urge farm workers to perform well prior to Christmas and to finish their tasks. As a reward they would receive a new item of clothing from their masters. Those who did not complete their tasks, however, received no gift from their master, thus “ending up in the Yule Cat”. In other words, the Yule Cat helped combat laziness and inertia. Naturally it was highly unjust that those who, due to poverty or other adverse circumstances, did not receive any new clothing risked being eaten by a horrible Yule Cat. On the other hand, people who had more to give than others were urged to assist those less fortunate so that everyone could enjoy a Christmas free of monsters and fiends. Today, of course, Christmas is that time of year when the more fortunate among us are most likely to give freely to those who have less.