Christmas in Iceland with 13 Santas and a Christmas Cat!

He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice. Santa Claus is coming to town. In the case of Iceland, there is not one but 13 Santas who check out which children behave and who do not. The Yuletide season is full of festivities with stories and legends to delight the young and old. Iceland has taken these stories and added their unique touch. Among the elves, trolls, dwarves, and magical creatures, there’s a particular troll family that Icelandic children of all ages celebrate (and some dread!) as Christmas nears.

Your Friend in Reykjavik is happy to share the stories we grew up with on our Reykjavik Folklore Walking Tour. And here’s a little sneak peek into why Iceland festivities are that much more fun!

Why the 12 Days of Christmas are 13 in Iceland

The 12 Days of Christmas in the English carol are about gifts received after Christmas. In Iceland, they are about trolls or half-trolls. We have thirteen brothers, also known as the Yule Lads or jólasveinarnir, who visit children, one at a time, every night from the 12th to the 24th of December. 

And much like the Santa Claus, the Yule Lads know who’s been bad or good!

So, for the 13 days before Christmas, Icelandic children put a shoe in their bedroom window. If they were good that day, they would find a sweet treat or little gift in the morning. They wouldn’t get anything as lovely as a lump of coal if they were bad. They get rotten potatoes! To be fair, Iceland doesn’t have coal mines, and we grow many potatoes.

But Who Are the Yule Lads?

They may behave a little like the Santa you know and love, but Iceland’s Yule Lads have individual personalities. Some are kind of gross. Most are intent on stealing food somehow. But all they have for the kids are small gifts, sweets or potatoes. In order of their arrival, we have:

  1. Stekkjarstaur (Sheep Cote Clod) doesn’t let his two peg legs stop him from bothering the sheep.
  2. Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) waits for his chance to steal milk from the cowshed by hiding in a gully.
  3. Stúfur (Stubby) is very short, but he’ll still try to steal your pans to eat the crust.
  4. Þvörusleikir (Spoon Licker) loves to steal spoons to lick. No wonder he’s so thin if that’s all he eats!
  5. Pottaskefill (Pot Scraper) scrapes leftovers out of the pots he steals.
  6. Askasleikir (Bowl Licker) hides under the bed and waits to steal bowls to lick clean.
  7. Hurðaskellir (Door Slammer) has fun waking people in the middle of the night by slamming doors.
  8. Skyrgámur (Skyr Gobbler) tries to steal his favourite food, skyr (Icelandic-style yoghurt).
  9. Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage Swiper) hides in the rafters for his chance to steal hanging sausages that are being smoked.
  10. Gluggagægir (Window Peeper) spies in windows, checking out what belongings inside he can snatch.
  11. Gáttaþefur (Doorway Sniffer) uses his big nose to sniff out bread.
  12. Ketkrókur (Meat Hook) steals meat with his handy hook.
  13. Kertasníkir (Candle Stealer) has a fondness for candles to eat. It is worth noting that candles were made from tallows back in the day, so it’s not unreasonable to eat them. 

If you visit during the holidays, you may catch one of them making a guest appearance at the National Museum. You can also go on a hunt for the 13 Yule lads and their twisted family in downtown Reykjavik, but their likeness is projected on buildings.

And then, finally, you may want to try your luck and leave out a shoe in the window to see what the Yule Lads think of you!

Be Good. You Don’t Want to Meet the Parents!

The lads may just leave rotten potatoes for bad kids, but their mom is not as nice. Grýla is a troll. Literally. Her boys may be a little naughty and leave potatoes for bad boys and girls. Their mother, however, takes naughty children to make a stew for her husband, Leppalúði, to eat. She wandered the streets asking people to give her their kids, but that didn’t always work. So now, she watches them all year and then snatches them up during Christmas. But kids who misbehave can escape this culinary fate if they promise to be good.

Kids must be good in Iceland to avoid Gryla’s pot! – Drawings by Halldór Pétursson and Tryggvi Magnússon. Statue of Grýla and a drawing from teen magazine Æskan.

Keep your eyes peeled when you’re out on our Reykjavik walking tours. You get a photo op with the parents as they are out on the streets looking for wicked little ones to be their fresh meat!

Reykjavik walking tours

What About the Christmas Cat?

Even the family pet gets in on the action in Iceland’s holiday legends. The Yule Cat stalks the streets on Christmas Eve, looking for something to eat. And it seems to be a bit of a snob. According to some stories, it doesn’t target bad children. Instead, it goes after those that didn’t get new clothes before the holidays. Although other accounts say, it just steals the children’s presents, which is a much nicer thought.

Let Your Friend in Reykjavik Show you Christmas, Iceland Style!

Who wouldn’t want to spend the festive season in Iceland with wondrous tales like these to explore? Whether you join our Reykjavik folklore walking tour or any of our other tours, we’ll make sure you get a taste of Iceland’s many enchantments. And if you want an exceptional holiday experience, check out our private walking tours of Reykjavik!

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