Every culture that celebrates Christmas has it’s own unique folklore surrounding the holidays. Here in the U.S., we have a fairly bright view of Christmas. Our cast of Christmas characters includes only benevolent creatures: Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, the elves at the North Pole, and the 8 magic reindeer. Other cultures also include evil characters. In Iceland, the Yule Cat is a creature feared by all.
The Family of the Yule Cat
It is said that in the mountains of Iceland there dwells and evil ogress named Grýla. She seems to have been the first of the evil Christmas characters to have made into Icelandic folklore. There are several different descriptions of Grýla, but one thing stays the same – she is half troll and half animal. Some say that she has 3 heads with 3 eyes on each of the heads. She lives with her 3rd husband, Leppalúöl (she ate the other 2).
Every year around Christmas, Grýla and her husband come down from the mountains and into the towns. Grýla searches for the poorly behaved children so that she can take them back up into the mountains with her. Once back at her home, those bad children will be boiled and eaten. However, she can’t take any of the good children. If a child repents of their bad behavior, she must let them go free.
Grýla and Leppalúöl also have 13 sons. These mischievous boys are known as the Yule Lads. Starting on December 12 each year, one of the Yule Lads would come down from the mountains each night. Each of the Yule Lads has a different personality and will do different things while in town. Children leave shoes out and if they were a good boy or girl, they might receive a small gift in their shoe. If the child was bad, the Yule Lad might leave them something like a rotten potato. Over the years, the Yule Lads have become more and more benign. At one point they were so bad that Iceland had to make a law that parents couldn’t use monsters like the Yule Lads to scare children.
The Big Bad Yule Cat
No evil ogre family would be complete without an equally evil pet. The Yule Cat would descend from the mountains on Christmas Eve. If someone did not receive new clothes on by Christmas Eve, they were subject to the judgement of the Yule Cat. There are 2 different versions of the Yule Cat’s actions. One version says that if a person didn’t receive new clothes, the Yule Cat would eat that person’s food. The other version says that the Yule Cat would eat the person who does not have new clothes.
The exact origin of the Yule Cat is unknown. There were other similar Yule animals that seem to have merged with it. An award winning Icelandic poet named Jóhannes úr Kötlum wrote a poem about the Yule Cat called Jolakötturinn. This non-rhyming poem sums up all of the folklore regarding the Yule Cat.
The Yule Cat sounds like a really strange addition to Christmas folklore, but it is really a reference to work ethic. Employers would use the story of the Yule Cat to encourage their employees to continue to work hard through December. The prize for working hard would be a brand new set of clothes. The tale of the Yule Cat also encouraged people to give to the needy so that they would not be eaten. Not having new clothes on Christmas Eve is referred to as “to end up in the (Yule) cat.” To this day, many people will dress from head to toe in new clothes on Christmas Eve.