In the 1600s, little Icelandic boys and girls first heard about a woman named Grýla, who lived in the mountains with her aging husband, 13 sons (The Yule Lads), and a giant, black cat. Grýla was hideous. She was half ogre, half troll, and she had hooves, horns, and 15 tails – not mention large warts on her nose. An old poem about Grýla describes her as having fifteen tails and on each tail she had a hundred balloons and every balloon contained twenty children.g
Other descriptions of Grýla say that she had 300 heads and 3 eyes on each head. She kidnaps the children and she and her husband, Leppalúði, put them in a large sack. Another account says that she has bad nails on each finger, eyes in the back of her head and horns like a goat, the ears dangle down to her shoulders and are fastened to her nose. Her chin is bearded and her teeth are like charcoal.
The Yule Lads are:
- 1. Stiffy Legs — He tries to suckle yews in farmer’s sheep sheds
- 2. Gully Gawk — He steals foam from buckets of milk
- 3. Stubby — He’s short and steals food from the frying pan
- 4. Spoon Licker — That’s right, you got it, he licks spoons
- 5. Pot Licker — He steals unwashed pots and licks them clean
- 6. Bowl Licker — He steals bowls of food
- 7. Door Slammer — He keeps everyone awake slamming doors left ajar
- 8. Skyr Gobbler — He eats up all the Skyr
- 9. Sausage Swiper — He makes his escape with strings of unattended sausages
- 10. Window Peeper — He likes to creep around outside and peek into uncovered windows
- 11. Door Sniffer — He has a huge nose, and sniffs out baked goods to make off with
- 12. Meat Hook — He steals meat, using his hook
- 13. Candle Beggar — He steals candles, which used to be sought-after items in Iceland
By 1746, Icelandic youngsters were so terrified of being eaten, they wouldn’t leave their homes. So the government stepped in and put a ban on using Grýla as an intimidation tactic.
After that, the ogress and her brood cleaned up their images. Grýla decided to send her sons into town only 13 days before Christmas, and they were instructed to spread holiday joy rather than fear.
One at a time, wearing a red-and-white suit, the boys now travel down from the mountains and place gifts in shoes that children leave on their windowsills. If the child of the house is good, they receive a small toy; if they’re bad, they get a rotten potato. But the bad kids figure rotten potatoes are better than being eaten, so they aren’t put out too much.
The Christmas Cat? He’s still prowling around during the holidays. In fact, he’s the reason why children beg their parents to put socks under the tree every year.
I love this folk tale, it’s so dark and ends up so festive, it’s just so strange!