The 13 Yule Lads of Icelandic Christmas folklore

Although Santa Claus is certainly the world’s best-known Christmastime gift-giver — thanks in no small part to the global influence of American culture and the advertising budget of The Coca-Cola Company — he is by no means the only such figure. European tradition and folklore is rife with precursors, side-kicks, companions, and parallels. (See, for example, Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, and Besnickel.) Many of these characters resemble St. Nick in form, function, or disposition: (typically bearded) magic men who dole out presents to well-behaved children and, at times, punishments to the naughty ones.

Yule Lads
Four men in costume as Yule Lads.

Icelandic folklore features its own unique cast of Christmas characters: the terrifying ogre Grýla and her husband Leppalúði, who feed on children and fish; the gigantic Yule Cat, a feline taller than the tallest houses that devours anyone caught without a new article of clothing at Christmas; and the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous elves who deliver tricks and treats at holiday time. Sometimes called the Yuletime-lads or Yulemen, the Lads are sons of Grýla and Leppalúði. Children place their shoes on windowsills each of the thirteen nights before Christmas, and one Lad visits per night, filling the shoes with either small gifts for well-behaved children or rotten potatoes for the naughty ones. According to the National Museum of Iceland, each Lad has his own distinct habits and personality, described vividly by his name. From Wikipedia:

Icelandic name English translation Description Arrival Departure
Stekkjarstaur Sheep-Cote Clod Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs. 12 December 25 December
Giljagaur Gully Gawk Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk. 13 December 26 December
Stúfur Stubby Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them. 14 December 27 December
Þvörusleikir Spoon-Licker Steals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition. 15 December 28 December
Pottaskefill Pot-Scraper Steals leftovers from pots 16 December 29 December
Askasleikir Bowl-Licker Hides under beds, waiting for someone to put down their askur (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals. 17 December 30 December
Hurðaskellir Door-Slammer Likes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up 18 December 31 December
Skyrgámur Skyr-Gobbler Has a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt) 19 December 1 January
Bjúgnakrækir Sausage-Swiper Hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked 20 December 2 January
Gluggagægir Window-Peeper A snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal 21 December 3 January
Gáttaþefur Doorway-Sniffer Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð) 22 December 4 January
Ketkrókur Meat-Hook Uses a hook to steal meat 23 December 5 January
Kertasníkir Candle-Stealer Follows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible) 24 December 6 January

The only thing we’re missing is a catchy Rudolph-esque Yule Lad tune to help us remember them all.


The gigantic, terrifying Yule Cat feeds at Christmastime.

Yule Cat
The Yule Cat is a huge and vicious cat who lurks about the snowy countryside during Christmastime and eats people who have not received any new clothes.

While Santa Claus is the central and typically solitary supernatural figure associated with Christmas for many Americans, European folklore is rife with other characters. A whole cast of such figures make their own annual Christmastime visits to evaluate children’s behavior and dole out corresponding rewards or punishments. Some of them supplement St. Nicholas, while others supplant him (consider Krampus and Belsnickel); some come from entirely separate traditions altogether. One such is the Yule Cat of Icelandic folklore.

The Jólakötturinn, or Yule Cat, is a monstrous feline taller than the tallest houses. At the end of the year, the creature lurks in the snow waiting to devour anyone who has not received new clothes for Christmas. Why new clothes? According to the National Museum of Iceland,

it was customary in the old rural [Icelandic] society that employers gave the employees in their home a new garment and sheepskin shoes for Christmas. This was done to reward the people for good work as the tasks that had to be accomplished before Christmas were numerous and therefore the weeks leading up to Christmas were characterized by a rigorous workload.

In this way, then, the Yule Cat rewards good behavior (hard work) and punishes slackers — perhaps a sensible ethic to promote given the harsh Icelandic climate.