Bad Santas


The last Icelandic Santa, or Yule Lad as they are called in Iceland, arrives in town tonight. Candle Beggar earned his name because of his reputation for stealing candles from Icelandic homes.

According to Icelandic tradition, there are 13 Icelandic Yule Lads, each of whom sneaks into homes to steal food (or other items) or scare people while also delivering small gifts to children during the 13 days leading up to Christmas.

In earlier times the Yule Lads were apparently vicious trolls who only came down from the mountains before Christmas to steal Christmas food rations and torment people with their pranks. Their parents, Grýla and Leppalúdi, also came to town to snatch misbehaving children and eat them, while the giant family cat also saw to eating children who didn't receive new clothes before Christmas.

As Eygló wrote in one of her Daily Lives last year, the stories of the Yule Lads have evolved through the ages. By 1746 they became so bloody that the Danes, who ruled over Iceland at that time, issued a law banning stories used for scaring children into good behavior.

In my home country of Australia, Santa has also been causing controversy lately. Last month, one of my students (I teach English) had been talking about his annual job as a Santa Claus in Reykjavík when the rest of the class interrupted to tell me that they had heard on Icelandic radio that Australian Santa Clauses had been banned from using the traditional greeting “ho, ho, ho” because it could be deemed derogatory towards women – the word “ho” (spelt hoe in this case) is American slang for prostitute (but also the word for a gardening tool).

Apparently, Santas had now been ordered to replace the greeting with “ha, ha, ha.” This was news to me. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the censoring caused much debate about the limits of political correctness.

An article in the Sunday Herald Sun however reported that the reason for the ban was because the deep “ho, ho, ho” bellowed by Santas might frighten children.

Recruitment firm Westaff, which supplies hundreds of Santas around the country, reportedly urged its employees to tone down their use of the “ho, ho, ho” phrase. In protest, two people reportedly quit a recent Santa training course.

“The reason behind that is we find that in some cases the little kids can get a little bit scared of the deep ‘ho, ho, hos’ and we ask them to be mindful of keeping their voices to a lower level,” an employee of Westaff told the Sunday Herald Sun.

There was even the suggestion that kids would be more inclined to understand “ha, ha, ha.” What? Since when were children scared of Santa? In any case, everyone knows that Santa goes “ho, ho, ho,” and not “ha, ha, ha,” which just seems ridiculous if you ask me. Following the ban, a Family Council spokesperson commented that hearing “ho, ho, ho” is unlikely to damage a child's psyche. You reckon?

But, in being mindful to the fears of children, Westaff instructed its Santas to try techniques such as lowering their tone of voice to encourage children to come forward and meet them. Now, that’s starting to sound scary.

The banning of the greeting has caused much controversy about the extremes of political correctness. One woman who runs a campaign against sexualizing children, said it was ridiculous to assume that small children would associate the word “ho” with prostitutes. Well, I don’t think it’s just children either, to be honest. Prior to the debate, I doubt that many adults associated the greeting with the selling of sex. Seriously.

Due to the number of complaints about the ban in Australia, some shopping malls which hire Westaff Santa Clauses have overruled the ban to allow those Santas to continue using the greeting. So, it looks like the “ho, ho, ho” that we’re use might, after all, be here to stay.

ZR – [email protected]

Click here to read an article about the Icelandic Yule Lads.

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.