Post by Joanna on Dec 24, 2016 3:05:35 GMT -5
Strange Icelandic Christmas Spirits
One of the things that makes Christmas in Iceland very different from most other Western countries is the absence of a Santa Claus: In his place we have 13 Yule lads. The Yule lads appear in old stories and folk tales. Historically the Yule lads and other Christmas spirits were far meaner and more evil, but beginning in the 18th century and then especially during the 19th century, they become more gentle. An 18th century royal decree concerning religious practice and domestic discipline banned the scaring of children with horror stories of monsters like the Yule lads.
Made more gentle by urban life and radio. The Yule lads maintained their old habits of mischief and petty theft, but their appearance changed. Old stories describe monsters with little resemblance to humans, but by the 19th century, they had assumed human form. When wealthy merchants began hosting public Christmas tree balls at the end of the 19th century the Yule lads had become friendly old men who brought treats. The kinder lads first appeared in towns and villages, while their evil characteristics survived longer in the countryside. However, their transformation had been completed by the 1930s when the Yule lads began making regular visits to schools and appearing on the radio to tell children stories and sing Christmas songs.
From 82 evil spirits to 13 friendly lads. Originally the number of Yule lads varied and there are as many as 82 different lads and trolls. In the 1860s, as the stories of the lads were being collected, their numbers, names and characteristics were being standardized. At the same time, their numbers shrank to 13, corresponding to the 13 days of Christmas.
Today the Yule lads dress in traditional Icelandic peasant wear, but for most of the 20th century, the lads all wore red, like the American Santa Claus. The reintroduction of traditional dress was made by the Icelandic National Museum in the 1980s. In 1988, the museum began inviting children from Reykjavík schools and preschools to the museum in December to learn about history and meet the Yule lads. And of course the museum lads wore traditional clothing, rather than imported Santa Claus costumes!
Dark winter spirits. The Yule lads are examples of the dark spirits of nature which take over during the winter as people retreat indoors. Outlying mountain and heath cabins, used during the summer, were abandoned in the fall and as the darkness of winter descended, people remained close to the core of the farm. One by one the Yule lads came down from the mountains until the entire crowd of trolls had descended upon the farms and towns on Christmas Eve: Nature and its uncontrollable spirits had reclaimed the land. Then one by one they returned to the mountains just as darkness retreated and the days grew longer. The characteristics of the Yule lads, who had names such as Sausage Swiper, Meat Hook and Skyr Gobbler offer another hint to their origins as reminders that people must take care of scarce foods during winter. Sausages, smoked legs of lamb, skyr and milk could disappear mysteriously if they weren’t kept under close surveillance!
Meet the mother: A child-eating, husband-murdering ogress. The Yule lads’ mother is the ogress Gryla, one of the oldest mythical characters in Icelandic folklore. She is mentioned 13th century manuscripts and we can also find Gryla-type beings in the Faroe Islands and a closely- related ogre in Ireland. She represents the fear of hunger: she is always hungry and threatens to snatch away children, usually the naughty ones.
The Yule lads became more gentle, Gryla remained evil, keeping the old tradition of evil Christmas spirits alive. In old stories, she has many heads, eyes in the back of her head, a beard, fangs, a tail and hooves: An actual monster. Gryla is accompanied by two other evil creatures. The lesser known is her husband, the troll Leppalúdi. Gryla is a domineering woman and is often shown beating and berating her husband. According to legend, Leppalúdi is the third of Gryla’s husbands. She killed and ate her first husband Gustur. She also murdered her second husband Boli, after the two had a large number of troll children. The Yule lads are the children of Leppalúdi and Gryla. In some stories both Gryla and Leppalúdi have perished from hunger because there are no naughty children anymore.
Finally: The murderous Christmas Cat. Gryla’s other companion is much better known: Jólakötturinn, or the Christmas Cat. The origins of the Christmas cat are more mysterious than those of Gryla and the Yule lads, all of whom are clearly traditional trolls or mythical spirits living in mountains and uninhabited areas. The earliest written records of the Christmas cat date to the 19th century, but he seems to be closely related to Scandinavian beliefs in the Christmas goat. According to the story, the Christmas cat will snatch and eat children who don’t get new clothing for Christmas. This belief is probably connected to the tradition of everyone getting a new article of clothing for the holidays and the custom of farmers giving their farmhands new clothes each year. The Christmas cat may also be connected to the pressure to finish all weaving and knitting before the holidays.
Source: Iceland Magazine, December 23, 2016.