Someone who lived in this apartment before me must have been Icelandic or at least have travelled to Iceland because last December I received an offer in the mail for an Icelandair credit card. The envelope said something like "It's almost time for the Yule Lads!" and both the envelope and the enclosed letter were decorated with these goofy-looking little cartoon gnomes. I imagined that Icelandair was suggesting, to the native son for which the letter was intended, that he might want to fly back to his homeland for the holidays.
Well I certainly wasn't going to sign up for a credit card to earn miles on Icelandair, but I was nevertheless intrigued by these funny little creatures the letter called the Yule lads: who were these guys? I consulted Mr. Internet and found out that the Yule lads are mischievous little trolls who visit Icelanders' homes in the weeks before Christmas.
The fearsome ogress, Grýla
The Yule lads are less ferocious than their mama and her pet, and -- at least in the last few centuries -- they're more of a nuisance than anything. There are 13 of these troublemakers, and one visits your home everyday from December 12 to December 24. Here they are in order:
Dec. 22 Sniffer (Gáttaþefu): he has a big nose that he uses to sniff out cakes.
Dec. 23 Meathook (Ketkrókur): he uses his hook to reach down the chimney and snag hanging meats.
Dec.24 Candle beggar (Kertasníkir): in centuries past candles were an invaluable souce of light, and it was a treat for children to get a candle on Christmas Eve. This little guy wants one too.
Beginning in the mid-20th century the Yule lads have also started to act as little Santas. Children leave their shoes on the window sill, and each night the Yule lads leave a small present. Naughty children find potatoes or rocks in their shoes instead of a treat.
Dec. 23 is also the Feast Day of St. Thorlac, the patron saint of Iceland. Icelanders celebrate this holiday by eating cured skate -- salted, putrified fish.
Skyr is a cultured, fermented dairy product much like greek yogurt. When I was reacquainting myself with my buddies the Yule lads yesterday, I was like "what's skyr again?" and read all about it. Then last night I went grocery shopping at Whole Foods, and -- wouldn't you know -- I found skyr in the dairy case with the yogurt. So of course I had to buy some and try it out.
Now I know I'm supposed to be waging a one man war against the evil forces of milchig -- but lactards like me can usually digest fermented dairy products like yogurt and skyr since the cultures consume most or all of the lactose.
I tried out the skyr this morning, and it was really good: I guess its like halfway between yogurt and cottage cheese, and its really tart and sour. I ate mine with some blackberries and cornflakes. Skyr is also super good for you as it has lots of protein, no fat and 110 calories per container. Perhaps all the putrified fish won't catch on over here, but Skyr is one Icelandic delicacy which is apparently making inroads in the US market.
Illustrations (c) Halldor Petursson and taken from Christmas in Iceland site