The Yule Lads

The Yule Lads:

The Icelandic Yule Lads bear little similarity to the world-famous Santa Claus, who is descended from St. Nicholas, patron saint of children and sailors. In contrast, the Icelandic Yule Lads are descended from trolls and their original role was to strike fear in the hearts of children. As it happens, they are the sons of two of the most hideous ogres ever known in Iceland, Grýla and Leppalúði.

No doubt most children would have wanted to avoid the Icelandic Yule Lads in the old days, since they were used by parents to frighten their children into behaving – just as Grýla and Leppalúði are today. Evidently this was of some concern to Icelandic authorities, since in 1746 a public decree was issued to prohibit parents from frightening their children with monsters and fiends like the Yule Lads.

Nutima-jolasveinnWhether it was due to this decree or something else, the Yule Lads became increasingly benign. Over time they ceased to be a threat to children's lives, though they continued to be thieving scoundrels. In the 20th century, the Icelandic Yule Lads became strongly influenced by their foreign colleagues, both in terms of conduct and appearance. They began wearing red garments on special occasions, similar to Santa Claus and the Danish Christmas gnomes. They also developed an unprecedented kindness towards children, to the point where they started depositing gifts in their shoes.

Yet despite these foreign influences, the Icelandic Yule Lads kept their traditional Icelandic characteristics, including their names, their residence in the mountains, and their number – thirteen. That said, there has been some discrepancy over the years as to how many Yule Lads there actually were, and also what their correct names were. Dozens of different names for the Yule Lads appear in different folk tales and stories. A popular poem about the Yule Lads by the late Jóhannes úr Kötlum, which first appeared in the book Jólin koma (Christmas is Coming) in 1932, served to make their names and number much better known. The names of the 13 Yule Lads that most Icelanders know today are all derived from that poem.

In 1988, the Icelandic Yule Lads were formally invited to the National Museum for a pre-Christmas visit, and they have been regular visitors each December ever since. They start arriving 13 days before Christmas, one each day. They wear their traditional garb, as opposed to the red suits they fancy for special occasions, and always try to nick one or two of their favourite things, which just goes to show that they are still a bit naughty, even though they are basically good lads. They have some trouble coping with modern life with its technology and other complexities, which is why they especially like visiting the National Museum and all the old objects that are kept there.

Several years ago, Grýla became completely fed up with the Yule Lads' shabby appearance. The National Museum staff got wind of this and asked the Yule Lads about it. They admitted that they did, in fact, own a single red suit that they took turns using, and that they were in stiff competition with the “American Santa Claus”, as they called him. Subsequently the National Museum joined forces with Icelandic designers and craftspeople to design new clothes for the Yule Lads so they could look good for Christmas. Their parents, Grýla and Leppalúði, also received new clothes, made from wool cloth, sheepskin, felt and Icelandic woollens. So the Icelandic Yule Lads are now very well dressed for their visits to the National Museum after their long trek down from the mountains. They arrive from 12 December onward at 11 am, in this order:

Sheep-Cote Clod

 - arrives at the National Museum on 12 December at 11am

The first Yule Lad comes to town on 12 December. His name is Sheep-Cote Clod and he used to try to suckle the yews in the farmers' sheep sheds.

StekkjarstaurThe first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer's sheep
as far as he could.

He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn't; he had stiff knees
- not to convenient.

Gully Gawk

 - arrives at the National Museum on 13 December at 11am

On 13 December it is Gully Gawk's turn. Before milking machines were invented he had a habit of stealing into the cowshed and slurping the foam off the milk in the buckets.

GiljagaurThe second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.

Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.


 - arrives at the National Museum on 14 December at 11am

The Yule Lad who arrives on 14 December is called Stubby. He is a little, shall we say, vertically challenged. He is also known as Pan Scraper because in the old days he used to try snatching bits of food from the frying pan.

StúfurStubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.

And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims - his favorites.

Spoon Licker

- arrives at the National Museum on 15 December at 11am

Spoon Licker comes down from the mountains on 15 December. In the past he would sneak into the houses and lick the wooden spoon used to scrape the pots. These days he looks for wooden spoons at the National Museum when he visits.

ÞvörusleikirThe fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn't in.

Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.

Pot Scraper

 - arrives at the National Museum on 16 December at 11am

Pot Scraper is expected on 16 December. He is also sometimes called Pot Licker since in the old days he waited to snatch away the pots that had not been washed and licked the food remains from the insides. 

PottasleikirPot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he'd come to the door and tap.

And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scrapingfest.

Bowl Licker

- arrives at the National Museum on 17 December at 11am

Bowl Licker comes to town on 17 December. In the past, Icelanders ate from lidded wooden bowls that they sometimes kept under the bed or on the floor. Bowl Licker would hide under the bed, and if someone put their bowl on the floor he grabbed it and licked the inside clean.

AskasleikirBowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.

And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
- he was sure good at that!

Door Slammer

- arrives at the National Museum on 18 December at 11am

Door Slammer comes to town on 18 December. He always made a lot of noise when he walked around, slamming doors and such, so people could hardly get any rest. He still has a habit of slamming doors and always does when he visits the National Museum.

HurðaskellirThe seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,

he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.

Skyr Gobbler

- arrives at the National Museum on 19 December at 11am

On 19 December we welcome the Yule Lad called Skyr Gobbler. His favourite is an Icelandic dairy product called skyr, which is similar to yogurt. He likes it so much that he used to sneak into the pantry and gobble all the skyr out of the skyr tub.

SkyrgámurSkyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.

Then he stood there gobbling
- his greed was well known -
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.

Sausage Swiper

- arrives at the National Museum on 20 December at 11am

On 20 December we are expecting Sausage Swiper. He loved to eat sausages and stole them whenever he had a chance.

BjúgnakrækirThe ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.

Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.

Window Peeper

 - arrives at the National Museum on 21 December at 11am

December 21 is when Window Peeper visits. This Lad was not as greedy as some of his brothers, he just liked to peep through the windows and sometimes nicked the toys that he saw.

GluggagægirThe tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.

And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.

Door Sniffer

- arrives at the National Museum on 22 December at 11am

Door Sniffer comes to town on 22 December. He is easily recognised by his huge nose. He loved the smell of cakes and lace bread – sometimes called leaf bread – when they were being prepared for Christmas, and always tried to steal one or two.

GáttaþefurEleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.

He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.

Meat Hook

 - arrives at the National Museum on 23 December at 11am

St. Thorlák's Day, 23 December, is the day of Meat Hook's arrival. Meat Hook was crazy about meat. In the old days he would lower a long stick through the chimney and snag a smoked leg of lamb hanging from the rafters, or a piece of smoked lamb from the pot. In those days the smoked lamb, which is traditional Icelandic Christmas fare, was cooked on St. Thorlák's Day.

KetkrókurMeat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak's Day.

He snagged himself a morsel
of meet of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.

Candle Beggar

 - arrives at the National Museum on 24 December at 11am

Candle Beggar arrives on Christmas Eve Day, 24 December. In former times, candles were the brightest lights available to people. They were so rare and precious that all children longed to have their very own candle for Christmas. And poor Candle Beggar – well, he also longed for a candle. The National Museum is open between 11 and 12 on Christmas Eve Day, to welcome Candle Beggar.

KertasníkirThe thirteenth was Candle Beggar
- ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.

He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.





From the poem The Yuletide Lads by Jóhannes úr Kötlum.                                                                    English translation by Hallberg Hallmundsson.