Christmas Traditions

Shoe in the Window

On the night preceding December 12th it is customary for Icelandic children to put their shoe in the window as that night the first Yule „Stekkjarstaur“  or Sheep-Cote Clod comes to town. The shoe stays on the window sill until Christmas and the children hope that the Yule lads, who one by one come into town from the mountains those nights leading up to Christmas, will leave a little something for them in the shoe. 

 

The children must earn these small gifts as they must be well behaved or else they run the risk of finding a potato in their shoe. Even though this custom is well entrenched now, this has not always been the case and at the outset there was some confusion as to how many nights before Christmas the shoe should be in the window as well as about how large or small the gifts should be.

The reason for this confusion was that when this custom was first brought to Iceland it was only common within well defined groups and did not spread much outside those groups. Those who first got to know this custom were Icelandic seamen who sailed in the North Sea, but in Holland and other regions by the North Sea it was customary for children to put their shoe in the window on the eve of December 6th, which is the day of the Mass of St. Nicholas, the protector of Children and Seafarers in Catholicism. The children hoped for St. Nicholas to put a little something in their shoe. The Icelandic Seamen got to know this custom and brought it home with them and introduced it to their own children. The first known instances of Icelandic children putting their shoe in the window date back to the 1930s. In the beginning this custom spread slowly and was only know in prescribed circles. Around the middle of the Century it became better and better known and at that time became common for Icelandic children to put their shoe in the window.

 

Here in Iceland it was not St Nicholas who put gifts in the shoe, but rather the Yule lads. For quite a while it differed between homes when the children started putting their shoe in the window and in some homes children would do this as early as December 1st. It also differed from home to home how large or small the gifts were and it happened that children from rich families received large amounts each time and sometimes the Yule lads seemed to play at favoritism to an unacceptable degree. At the end of the seventies the situation had got so out of hand that assistance was sought from the Folk Custom Section of the National Museum on how to handle these discrepancies and extravagance. The remedy was a campaign of consiousness raising conducted in the media and in kindergartens where parents were requested to stay away from extravagance in this respect as well as reminding them that as the Yule lads are thirteen in all no shoes should be put in windows until thirteen days before Christmas, or on the night before the 12th of December.