Iceland has many folktales about Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Many deals with elves that, for some reason, use that time to be out and about. Some go dancing in people’s houses, while others move houses. Some stories tell how you should definitely not be in their way when they come; in others, elves are thankful for the help they receive, while yet others say you must not speak to them. Otherwise, you could lose your mind.

The following tale tells how housewives decorated the house for elves and how people made sure to get clothes for Christmas so the Yule Cat would not take them or their food.

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Christmas Eve Night

It is now taken for granted that everyone celebrates Christmas, which is the mother of all other holidays. There is much to look forward to for children, especially lights in churches and at home. However, this festival of lights is not only for human beings but also for elves because their dwellings were all decorated with lights. Everyone was happy and sang at the top of their lungs and danced and played musical instruments.

Whether or not humans have adopted it after the dance of the elves to have the vikivaki dance festivals around Christmas time, which will be described later, it is certain that Christmas was and is a true festival of lights for humans. In ancient times it was customary for housewives to sweep the whole house from top to bottom both on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. They put lights in every nook and cranny, so there was no shadow anywhere, and with that, they welcomed elves who might be traveling or moving houses on New Year’s Eve. When they had swept the house and put lights in it, they went out and around it, some say three times, and “invited the elves home,” saying: “Let those come who want, let those stay who want, and those who want to leave, without hurting me and mine.”

This preface was accompanied by the fact that women sometimes brought provisions and wine to tables inside for elves. The story goes that the provisions were usually gone in the morning. It may have been more customary to invite elves to the house on New Year’s Eve and to serve food to them than on Christmas Eve, but the use of lights was no less on Christmas Eve than on New Year’s Eve. When the people went to bed on those nights, the housewife always made sure that not a light would be out and then put up new lights in each corner when the others were starting to burn out or put the lamps back on so that the lights would last the whole night until it was bright the next day.

In some places in this country, it is still a custom to burn a light in the sleeping quarters for people, even if they are asleep, both nights. Even though there is no longer light in every corner, you can still find evidence of this old custom. Especially where children are given candles on both these nights, called Christmas candles and New Year’s candles.

The Yule Cat

However, people could not enjoy the joy of Christmas completely carefree. Because, in addition to the Yule Lads, people excepted the Yule Cat to be out on the prowl. It didn’t hurt anyone who got new clothes to wear on Christmas Eve. Still, the others who didn’t get any new clothes “all went to the Christmas cat.” Hence, it took (ate?) them or at least their Christmas food portion (jólarefur = Christmas fox).

People considered themselves lucky if the cat was satisfied with the food portion. But Jólarefur was the name given to the food portion (meat and fat, etc.) every household member got on Christmas Eve.
Because of this, both children and workers asked their masters to get them some new clothes for Christmas so they would not go to the damned Christmas cat. They also made sure it would not take their food. No wonder people were merry at Christmas when they got new clothes, plenty of Christmas food, and Christmas candles. Because then they were safe from the Yule Cat. This is what is said about children’s Christmas joy:

“Bread should be given to children
to bite at Christmas,
candlelight and red clothes
so they get out of bed,
a good piece of fat sheep
which walked on the mountain hills.
Now old Grýla is dead;
she gave up strolling.”

Christmas night is still the time when outdoor gatherings at crossroads are the most frequent, and vikivaki dance festivals are most commonly held.

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