In Iceland, 13 Yule Lads herald Christmas

Egill Bjarnason
Associated Press

Myvatn, Iceland – The people of northern Iceland have had their travel plans disrupted with a record high snowfall this December. Roads have been shut, flights cancelled and school suspended.

But for the children of this isolated North Atlantic island nation, the main worry is how the waist-high snow might affect the Icelandic Santa, Stekkjastaur, who comes to town Wednesday.

Stekkjastaur, after all, has a stiff peg-leg.

He is one of 13 mischievous troll brothers, called the Yule Lads, who have entertained and also frightened Icelandic children for hundreds of years.

Instead of a friendly Santa Claus, children in Iceland enjoy favors from the brothers, who come down from their mountain cave 13 days before Christmas according to folklore.

The brothers are loud, reckless, and have names like Door-Slammer, Window-Peeper, Meat-Hook, Candle-Stealer – reflecting their preferred method of pranks or criminal behavior. But they claim to be mostly rehabilitated, and Sausage-Swiper is now keen to host barbecues.

Traditionally, they bathe once a year ahead of Christmas. Every year local actors in Myvatn, an inland community bordering Iceland’s uninhabited interior, dress up in 19th-century costume and arrive as the Yule Lads to a natural lagoon heated with water from hot springs.

To children in the region, their arrival marks the countdown to December 24, when Icelanders celebrate Christmas.

“But, but, but – I was told we were going fishing,” mumbled actor Hulda Sigmundsdottir, who plays “Pot-Licker,” as she dipped her woolen sock reluctantly into the bath.

In the spirit of today’s global outsourcing economy, the Yule Lads have also taken on the responsibility of replying to letters addressed to Santa Claus, their foreign colleague.

The letters arrive throughout the year and often include a wish-list, personal gift or simply a warm greeting. The Yule Lads, who speak Icelandic, admit sometime struggling with foreign languages.

Fortunately the letters are not delivered to the Yule Lads’ home, where they might be stolen by their evil mother, Gryla, said to be a 600-year-old woman who eats children.

Terry Gunnell, a professor in folklore at the University of Iceland, said the Yule Lads had traditionally been used to discipline children when adults were busy preparing for the holiday.

“On the old Icelandic farms, stories of dark figures kept children from running into the mountains or falling into lakes or things like that,” he said.