Iceland and ghost stories have gone hand in hand since the time of settlement. It is not hard to understand why, the winter nights are long and dark and the irregular landscape characterized by lava fields, can even evoke an imagination in my tax accountant. With the birth of electricity illumination did little to decrease the spookiness, it merely amplifies the effect, as the still black darkness now simply waits silently outside the border of light. Ghost stories are therefore still valid as a form of bizarre entertainment and usually considered good form – the creepier the better. As an example, when my daughter graduated from elementary school last spring the school celebrated by inviting the children to spend the night in a secluded lighthouse where they were to be told ghost stories. Every single child attended and I am sure the lighthouses bulbs were badly strained, if not cracked, from the screaming that lasted all night long. Not one parent complained and my husband and I were very pleased with the effort. Icelandic parents are great believers that you need to toughen up your kid for later.
This begins at a much earlier age than the graduation from elementary school. While the States have Dr. Spock to help raise the young, Iceland has Grýla to assist in childrearing. Albeit not a ghost, Grýla is an old, horrible ogre woman who eats naughty children and therefore comes in handy for using to scare them into obedience. This works like a charm for a number of years but eventually the kids catch on and realize they are not about to be put into a pot and boiled alive to make Baby Bouillabaisse. This marks the beginning of an awkward transition phase, wherein parents have to figure out something else to keep their offspring in check. The most commonly selected method is bribery which generally last until they are out of the house. Although the latter method has more endurance, the Grýla method is a lot more fun and a whole lot cheaper. Few things compete with a wide eyed and frightened stare of a naughty toddler, caught in the act, expecting a snaggletoothed cannibal with a huge wart on its nose to appear in the window, canvas bag in hand, ready for filling up with children and dragging them up into the mountains for cooking.
To complicate things Grýla is also the mother of the Icelandic Santa Clauses or Yule Lads, 13 in all, who are vastly different from the jolly bearded Santa Claus known to the rest of the world. These guys are small time crooks, thieves and robbers, who steal food, aside from one who’s criminal specialty is being a peeping Tom. These tattered looking guys travel down from the mountains during December – one per night from the 11th on. The story dates from the time when food was the most valuable commodity in Iceland but if it originated from the modern day, these robbers would probably steal computers, TVs and other items of more value to the average family than a leg of lamb. Although the food crimes of yore have stood their ground and not evolved, the legend has been amended at some point, possibly to catch up with the times that did not appreciate the nonexistent moral of the story. The vulgar characters suddenly started leaving things behind for good children and today every Icelandic child places one of their shoes on the windowsill of their bedroom, 13 nights in a row leading up to Christmas Eve, and if they have behaved well during the day they will wake up to find a small toy or candy waiting for them within the shoe. If they have been disobedient or bad it will contain a potato. I have never been able to figure out why shoes were chosen as the receptacle for these small presents but I have reached one conclusion from the set up of this tradition – namely that Icelandic children must be less well behaved than children in other countries as they only need to be good for one single day to get a present from Santa Claus while elsewhere Santa reviews their behavior on an annual basis. Perhaps Dr. Spock’s methods are more effective than using the Grýla scare tactics.