The 13 Yule Lads have disturbed the sleep of Icelandic children for centuries. At first because they were scared to death by the ogre brothers; nowadays because they anticipate the treats the lads leave behind in their shoes.
Published in the No. 5 2011 October-December issue of Atlantica. By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Illustration by Erna Kristín Gylfadóttir.
Let me tell the story
of the lads of few charms,
who once upon a time
used to visit our farms.
They came from the mountains,
as many of you know,
in a long single file
to the farmsteads below.
So begins the beloved poem Jólasveinar by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (1899-1972), composed in 1932, which is known as The Ballad of the Yuletide Lads in the English translation of Hallberg Hallmundsson.
“Who will it be tonight?” kids debate: Stiff-Legs, Gully Gawk, Stubby, Ladle Licker, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Door Slammer, Skyr Gobbler, Sausage Snatcher, Window Peeper, Sniffer, Meat Hook or Candle Beggar?
Thirteen days before Christmas the first Yule Lad sneaks into Icelandic homes in the dead of the night to steal candles, food or slam doors—their names indicate their vices—and leave little treats behind in the shoes of well-behaved children. The children eagerly place their shoes on the windowsill each night and, because they anticipate the arrival of the lads, they try to behave exceptionally well throughout December. If they fail, they might wake up to find a potato in their shoe. Many a child is so curious about these nighttime visits that they are determined to stay awake to catch the Yule Lads in the act but somehow sleep always creeps in before they do.
The 13 Yule Lads have disturbed the sleep of Icelandic children for centuries. At first, however, because they were scared to death by the Yule Lads. In the old days, they were vicious trolls (around 80 of them, according to some tales), who lived in the mountains like outlaws but came down before Christmas to steal food rations and torment people with their pranks. They are the offspring of the horrid ogress Grýla, who knows nothing more delicious than naughty children, and her lazy excuse for a husband, Leppalúdi.