Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Icelandic Santas - the Yule Lads

The Icelandic Santa Clauses are not really Santas in the jolly, Ho-ho-ho, chubby, white beard understanding of the name. These guys are decendants of trolls and have a wardrobe to match. No red velvet with white fur trimming for them. Not at all.

Although the Icelandic name for these figures is the same as what we use for the American/European Santa or „jólasveinn“ the translation really means Christmas guys or Yuletide lads.  There are 13 of them although the exact figure depends on the source, one mentioning them to be „one and eight“. The adding was required in order to fit with the rhyme of the verse. Fever words of any use rhyme with nine than eight in Icelandic.

To quote wikipedia the Icelandic Yuletide Lads: originate from Icelandic folklore. Early on their number and depictions varied greatly depending on location, with each individual Lad ranging from mere pranksters to homicidal monsters who eat children.

We have come a long way since. Well, perhaps not super long but a bit. The Yule lads are no longer homicidal although they can still be considered hooligans. Rather tame hooligans actually. Each is still named after his individual way of teasing the farmers of yore but the modern version has evolved to also include what has endeared them to the nation – they now brings gifts. I do not know how this development occurred but it was a smart move. No one really likes a hooligan. Even a tame hooligan.

The names of the Yule lads are not easily translated. They are clunky and old. Hallbergur Hallmundsson has translated a local favorite Christmas verse collection in which they each make an appearance and his translation of the names are shown below. I have only made small adjustments and added a bit of clarity to the descriptions of each. Note that aside from two they specialize in food-crime which is a testiment of how poor Iceland was at the time of their creation. No one had any gold. The rich had food.

Sheep-Cote Clod (Stekkjastaur): Harasses ewes and tries to drink milk from their teats, but due to a pair of peg-legs he is not very successful.

Gully Gawk (Giljagaur): Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk. In the old times there were lots of gullies everywhere (I am assuming).

Stubby (Stúfur): Abnormally short, dwarfish. Note that at the time there was nothing known as being politically correct. If you were abnormally short you would be called Stubby. His thing is to steals pans to eat the crust left on them.

Ladel-Licker (Þvörusleikir): Malnourished and extremely skinny, although today he is considered fashionably thin. Steals ladels and licks them.

Pot-Scraper (Pottaskefill): Steals leftovers from pots. Today he would steal cold pizza slices from boxes.

Bowl-Licker (Askasleikir): Has an ugly head. Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down a bowl of food scraps for the cat or dog of the house, which he then steals. Today pets eat pet food and this guy would have gotten himself another food crime to focus on.

Door-Slammer (Hurðaskellir): Slams doors, especially during the night. Go figure.

Skyr-Gobbler (Skyrgámur): A Yule Lad with an affinity for skyr. This guy I get.

Sausage-Swiper (Bjúgnakrækir): Hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked. He is hard up today as no one has any rafters anymore, much less do we smoke sausages. He now pinches pepperoni off pizzas.

Window-Peeper (Gluggagægir): A voyeur of the peeping Tom variety who looks through windows in search of things to steal. This guy is the happiest of the bunch with the advances of the modern age. Window panes are now much more see-through than before.

Doorway-Sniffer (Gáttaþefur): Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to sniff out food – from the doorway. This guy would be institutionalized today for sure. It is not proper anymore to stand sniffing in doorways.

Meat-Hook (Ketkrókur): Uses a hook to steal meat. His English name is worthy of a serial killer while the Icelandic version sounds more like a crummy pirate‘s name.

Candle-Stealer (Kertasníkir): Sneaks behind children and follows them around in order to steal their candles and eat them (i.e. the candles). They don’t make candles like they used to (from fat). He is not all too happy these days.

So thirteen days before Christmas Eve these Yule lads begin their decent from the mountains where they live with their mother Grýla and their unemployed father Leppalúði. They tread the snow into the urban areas, one arriving per night. Each stays for two weeks before trodding back, the last one leaving on what is called „the Thirteenth“ or „Þrettándinn“ which takes place on January 6th and is celebrated with bonfires and what remains of the fireworks from New Year's.

Icelandic children put one of their shoes in the window of their bedroom before going to bed on the evening of the 11th of December. If they have been good they wake up in the morning of the 12th with a small present in the shoe from the first Yule Lad. This is repeated until they last such morning of the 24th which is the main day of Christmas celebration here. If they are bad they get a potato. Here we have no coal. Well we did not use to – they arrived with the barbeque.
We have no Santa specialized in stealing off barbeques.
Yrsa - Wednesday 


Yrsa - Wednesday

1 comment:

  1. I am amazed, Yrsa, at the similarities between the 13 Yuletide Lads of Iceland, and the characters at my local Upper Eastside Manhattan bar. At least one of your lads can be found there on almost any given night.

    Tonight, for example, I stopped by after the annual Mystery Writers of America--NYC branch holiday party (a blast hosted by our own Annamaria Alfieri) and there at the bar was Sheep-Cote Clod harassing ewes with Gully Gawk right behind him, waiting to sweep on in--chanting some of the worst lines I'd ever heard in any language.

    Thankfully, Skyr-Gobbler was there, too, so it wasn't a total loss. Skal!