Everyone has heard of Father Christmas, but in Iceland they have some more… ‘unusual’ festive visitors who creep around leaving presents on children’s windowsills from December 12th until Christmas Eve.
Children in Iceland leave a shoe on their window sill in the run-up to Christmas and the Yule Lads, or Jólasveinar as they are called in Icelandic, leave a different present each night in the shoe.
These Icelandic versions of Santa Clause are mischievous trolls who come down from the mountains before Christmas to leave gifts for children who have been good – or a potato for those who have been naughty!
So, how many Yule Lads are there?
There are thirteen Yule Lads who, according to old Icelandic traditions, came to towns to cause trouble and play tricks.
The Yule Lads used to be much scarier figures, but in 1746 Iceland officially banned parents from telling their children scary stories about the trolls. Today, they are seen as more benevolent creatures who bring presents for children.
According to legend, the father of the Yule Lads is a lazy ogre called Leppalúði, while their mother is the evil ogre Grýla, who collects naughty children in her sack and takes them back to her cave to make soup out of them and eat them!
And to add to this scary family, there’s the Christmas Cat who eats any children who don’t get new clothes for Christmas!
Where do the Yule Lads live?
According to Icelandic legend, the Yule Lads, the ogre Grýla and the Christmas Cat all live in the caves of Dimmuborgir.
This natural labyrinth of stone caves consists of rock formations, arches and lava pillars. Near Lake Mývatn in the north of Iceland, these remote volcanic lava fields were said in Icelandic folklore to be the place where earth meets hell.
For more on the Yule Lads’ activities, check out this video.
What are the Yule Lads’ names?
Traditionally, the trolls are figures from Icelandic mythology, but the names they are known by today come from the “Yule Lad Poem” written in 1932 by Jóhannes úr Kötlum.
Each Yule Lad arrives on a particular date each year, starting with Stekkjastaur, the “Sheep Cote Clod” and ending with Kertasníkir, the “Candle Stealer”.
All of the Yule Lads stay in the towns for 13 days, with Kertasníkir being the last to return to the mountains on January 6th.
Which order do the Yule Lads arrive in?
If you want to know which order the Yule Lads arrive in, check out this rundown of the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads and when they appear!
The Sheep Cote Clod
Called Stekkjastaur in Icelandic, the Sheep Cote Clod is the first troll to come down from the mountains, arriving on December 12th each year.
Traditionally he harasses sheep, so Icelanders know that when the sheep start bleating Stekkjastaur has arrived. He tries to steal milk from sheep, but has stiff legs, so can’t run very fast.
The Gully Gawk
The Gully Gawk (Giljaguar in Icelandic) hides in gullies then sneaks into cow sheds to steal milk. He comes down from the mountains on December 13th.
Arriving in town on December 14th, Stubby is known as Stúfur in Icelandic. As his name suggests he is small and short, and he steals pots and pans from people’s houses, eating any leftovers that remain inside.
The Spoon-Licker, or Þvörusleikir in Icelandic, is depicted as being grotesquely thin and always hungry. He breaks into houses and licks any spoons that he can find.
Another gluttonous troll, the Pot-Scraper is called Pottaskefill in Icelandic, and comes into people’s houses on December 16th in search of any leftover pans of sauce, roast meat or seasonal vegetables that he can find to eat.
Particularly scary for children, the Bowl-Licker, or Askasleikir, hides under children’s beds at night and licks out the remains of their evening bowl of soup. It is thought that he developed this particular characteristic to encourage children to finish up their supper and not to waste any food.
The main mischief made by the Door-Slammer (Hurðaskellir in Icelandic) is slamming doors in the middle of the night. He arrives on December 18th, breaks into houses and slams doors aiming to wake up as many people as he can.
Skyrgámu, the Skyr-Gobbler loves the Icelandic speciality skyr, a thick creamy yoghurt that is a delicacy in Iceland, particularly over the festive season. He breaks into houses and steals any skyr that he can find!
Bjúgnakrækir is the Sausage-Swiper who arrives on December 20th and hides in the rafters of people’s houses. He then swoops down and steals the families’ smoked sausages that have been prepared for Christmas.
The Window-Peeper (Gluggagægir in Iceandic) is a creepy figure who lurks outside in the dark peering through the windows to scare children. Since there are only a few hours of daylight in many parts of Iceland in mid-winter, it’s likely that his behaviour was designed as a way of stopping children from venturing outside in the dark.
Gáttaþefur, the Doorway-Sniffer, has a very good sense of smell and an unusually large nose which he uses to sniff out and steal laufabrauð, a traditional Icelandic bread eaten at Christmas.
Meat-Hook, or Ketkrókur in Icelandic, arrives from the mountains on December 23rd and uses a large fearsome-looking meat hook to steal any kind of meat he can find from the kitchen.
The final troll to come down from the mountains, Kertasníkir arrives on Christmas Eve to steal and eat all the family’s candles. Traditionally candles were vital at Christmas time, when it can be dark for up to 20 hours a day, so his antics were particularly troublesome and scary for children.
Where can I see the Icelandic Yule Lads?
The trolls live in the caves at Dimmuborgir, which you can visit at any time of the year.
But if you want to see the trolls themselves you’ll have to come in December when special events are sometimes arranged.
Some years, the trolls also visit the National Museum in Reykjavík throughout December.
Where can you buy Icelandic Yule Lads?
Mini models of the Yule Lads make popular souvenirs and you can also get Yule Lad-themed Christmas decorations and ornaments if you fancy hanging a Yule Lad bauble on your tree.
Needless to say the souvenir trolls look considerably more friendly and jovial than the myths suggest!
What to see and do in Northern Iceland
40 free and cheap things to do in Reykjavík
10 of the best B&Bs in Iceland