Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Get Ready for the Yule Lads

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 (jólasveinarnir) are the children of a mountain troll named Grýla. Grýla is one tough mama. She was first mentioned in Icelandic poetry in the 13th century, and she's been married three times: to Gustur, Boli, and most recently Leppalúði. Yet throughout the years its been clear that Grýla wears the pants in her household as her mates are scarcely mentioned and in some stories her husband is bedridden.

It was said that Grýla had 15 tails and that she descended from her mountain home to scoop up brats and stuff them in her sack. Grýla was always hungry, and her favorite meal was a hearty stew made up of naughty children.

This bloodthirsty ogress inspired such fear that a law was actually past in 1746 prohibiting adults from terrorizing children with stories of Grýla and her posse.

The Yuletide Cat

Grýla and her husband keep a household pet called the Yuletide cat. According to tradition this black feline will devour any child that doesn't receive a new article of clothing before Christmas. What's that, Timmy, you don't want to wear the sweater Grandma knit you?

The Yule Lads

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. 12 Stiff Legs aka Sheepfold Stick (Stekkjastaur): this guys likes to suckle sheep's milk from farmer's ewes.

Dec. 13 Gully Oaf (Giljagaur): he sneaks into the cowshed and skims the froth from pails of milk.

Dec. 14 Shorty (Stúfur): he likes to eat the leftovers in unwashed pans, scraping them clean (alright with me!)

Dec. 15 Spoon-licker (Þvörusleikir): he's as skinny as the ladles he likes to lick.

Dec. 16 Pot-licker (Pottasleikir)

Dec. 17 Bowl-licker (Askasleikir): this rascal snatches unattended bowls and devours their contents.

Dec. 18 Door-slammer (Hurðaskellir): he makes a lot of noise around the house.

Dec. 19 Skyr-glutton (Skyrgámur): this guy loves to eat skyr which is a cultured dairy product like yogurt (more on skyr below)

Dec. 20 Sausage-pilferer (Bjúgnakrækir): he climbs the rafters where sausages are traditionally left hanging after they're smoked (that whole sentence sounds dirty)

Dec. 21 Window Peeper (Gluggagægir): this nosy fellow spies at windows and maybe steals toys.

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


Amanda Fliger said...

I"t was said that Grýla had 15 tails and that she descended from her mountain home to scoop up brats and stuff them in her sack. Grýla was always hungry, and her favorite meal was a hearty stew made up of naughty children."

Are you sure her name wasn't Josie?
Just kidding, thanks for always entertaining me AND educating me. You are a regular ole Electric Company.

Meeg said...

We're gonna turn it on
We're gonna give you the power

Josie said...

Hey! I read this blog too, ya know!!