Iceland’s Gryla the Christmas Witch, the Yule Lads, and Yule Cat
When Santa Claus has abandoned you and something dark knocks at your door…beware the Gryla the Christmas witch and her ghastly horde! Did you know there’s a dark side to Christmas? Most people have heard of Krampus, but there is a whole legion of Yuletide monsters just waiting to be your friend. In this terrifying holiday post, we tiptoe to the abode of the Icelandic Yule Cat, the Yule Lads, and their leader Gryla the Christmas witch. I said TIPTOE to their abode…don’t actually go in, unless you’re prepared for a night of Wintry terror!
First, What is Iceland Like on Christmas?
To learn all about the Yule Cat, Yule Lads, and Gryla the Christmas witch, we should first travel to Iceland during the Winter Holiday season. What is Iceland like during Christmas? Today, it’s a beautiful, Winter Wonderland most certainly blanketed with snow. You might get the wondrous blessing of beholding the Northern Lights. And Christmas is celebrated for a full twenty six days in Iceland! So, if you’re a Christmas fanatic, Iceland is probably right up your alley. If Iceland is such a great place to be during Christmas, where did these frightening legends originate? Well, we’d have to go further back in time…
In past centuries, when Iceland was less settled, the idea of a pleasurable Christmas or Yuletide might have been a little harder to come by. Iceland, though greener than Greenland, is a still not as green as you might think. There are wide, vast spaces of barren land, volcanoes, ice caps, and more. The terrain is treacherous and there’s a reason Iceland is known as the “Land of Fire and Ice”. During Christmas-time, there is approximately four to five hours of sunlight. The rest is darkness.
Think about the early Icelanders and what they must have felt during these cold, dark Winter nights. Survival was the main goal. And often the idea of survival was left in the hands of the gods and spirits in the landscape all around them. Would the gods and landvaettir be generous and let them live through the Winter? Or might the darkness take someone? Superstition around Christmas and Winter in general ran rampant. Moreover, there were beliefs brought to Iceland from other regions of Scandinavia that morphed and became something even darker. Enter the Yule Cat and Gryla the Christmas Witch.
Now, Who is the Yule Cat?
While many of us have cats a home that we just downright adore, the Yule Cat isn’t one to feed kibble and catnip to. This cat is something much different than the fluffy feline sitting at the top of your staircase. In Iceland, his name is the Jolakotturinn. Which essentially translates to Yule Cat and he is known to accompany the Yule Lads (of whom we will meet shortly) and Gryla the Christmas Witch. In fact, the Yule Cat myth has it that he is the pet of Gryla. So I guess someone must love him.
Does that mean if you meet the Jolakotturinn you should let him in your home? Only if you’re fond of facing terrifying creatures AND…and keep this at the forefront of your mind. AND ONLY IF you are wearing NEW CLOTHES on Christmas. What do new clothes have to do with the Yule Cat? Well, he will eat you if you’re wearing old clothes! According to writer Jeff Belanger in his new book The Fright Before Christmas, this practice might have originated with the farmers who would urge their workers to get all of the Autumn wool spun by Christmas. Else the Yule Cat would eat them. This would obviously ensure the work was done in good time.
The children in Iceland should also be aware that the Yule Cat might find them a tasty delight if indeed they have been naughty since last Christmas. This is one Christmas monster you just don’t want to anger, my friends.
Next, Let’s Meet the Yule Lads
If the Yule Cat wasn’t horrifying enough, let’s move on to the Thirteen Yule Lads that hang about for Iceland’s Christmas. Sadly, Santa Claus doesn’t visit the children in Iceland. But the Yule Lads, Jolasveinar or “Yule Swains”, do! (Personally, I’ve not decided if this is a good thing or bad thing yet.) The Yule Lads begin invading Iceland on December 12th, thirteen days before Christmas, and hang around until Christmas Day. Each day one new Yule Lad comes down from his home in the mountains to watch and loom about a homestead or in the city streets.
According to Linda Raedisch in her brilliant book The Old Magic of Christmas, these Yule Lads are more trollish in appearance and nature than human. And they all take on mischievous, if not downright disturbing, roles like one named Window Peeper. Yes, he looks through windows at the unsuspecting people inside. The rest of the thirteen Yule Lads don’t seem much easier to tolerate with names like Stubby, Gully Gawk, Door Slammer, and Pot Scraper. And yes, there’s even one named Skirt Blower…you can guess what this guy’s up to.
The Yule Lads cause mischief but in modern times encourage revelrie in the Yuletide season. Today it’s believed that if the children are bad, the Yule Lads will give them a potato (raw or rotting). And if the children are good, they will receive a gift from each of the thirteen Yule Swains. Replacing Santa even further, today’s Yule Lads will leave these small gifts in children’s shoes. Maybe it’s just me, but if I’d grown up in Iceland, I’d be certain to do what I was told all year long, just to be on the safe side. Please note, it’s traditional to leave an offering of “leaf bread” on the windowsills for the Yule Lads to appease them.
But how are the Yule Lads associated with Gryla the Christmas Witch and her monstrous Yule Cat? Well…Gryla is their MOTHER. Let’s meet her!
Grýla: The Terrifying Yuletide Ogress and Christmas Witch
Gryla is the monstrous troll-woman and Christmas witch of Iceland tradition and lore. She is accompanied by her thirteen children, the Yule Lads, and by her familiar, the Yule Cat. As if the Yule Lads and Yule Cat weren’t scary enough, Gryla takes the Yuletide squeals to the next level. Word has it, Gryla steals down from her domain in the mountains to the towns where the bad children lay asleep in their beds. She carries a large sack with her, so that when she snatches the children up she has a safe place to put them.
Documentation of Gryla’s Yuletide presence dates back to the thirteenth century! Gryla means “growler” in English and has been haunting children’s dreams since then. Apparently, Gryla lives in a cave high up and used to come down to eat naughty children whenever she had the urge. Nowadays, she sacrifices her energy to descend from her abode and kidnap the tasty children during Yule only. When described or illustrated, Gryla is a large hag-like ogress also often called a Christmas witch. Her husband’s name is Leppalúði, and though we don’t know a lot about him, we know that he fathered her children, the Yule Lads. And some say there are another twenty troll children made by these two grisly beings.
Where Did These Icelandic Christmas Monsters Come From?
Now, you would think that stories this frightening would be phased out. But the folklore of the Yule Lads, Yule Cat, and Gryla the Ogress haven’t dimished. In fact, they’ve grown in popularity. And, according to Belanger, some folks in Iceland dress up as these characters to the delight (or horror) of their family members and friends. In the United States, we’ve come to think of Christmas as a light and cheery holiday, which it absolutely can be, but in reality the Christmases of the past were not always joyful.
Sometimes survival was the theme, moreso than merriment. What monsters were lurking around the darkest of corners to take our loved ones away from us? To strip our prosperity and health away? This is how the people in the past dealt with their fears – by turning them into stories and bringing them to life. It’s much easier to face one’s fears with a real, physical being (or fairy tale story) in front of you. The monsters in the light (things that can be seen) are easier to conquer than the monsters in the dark (unknown things).
In old times, people used stories to teach lessons. And to warn of dangers. This is why many of our fairy tales originate in much darker legends. Gryla, the Yule Lads, and the Yule Cat are definitely tales of warning. Grisly reminders to the children to behave. Do as their parents tell them. Not to wander off into the wildest of places. In addition, to always complete one’s work in a timely fashion (don’t proscrastinate).
Animistic Beliefs, Trolls, Land Spirits and Another Christmas Witch
Gryla and her horde of trolls and ogre-like kindred stem from a the Icelanders ancient animistic beliefs. The settlers in Iceland originally came from places in Scandinavia – Norway and Sweden. And they brought their beliefs, traditions, and spirits with them including the gods, ancestors in the form of elves and disir, valkyries, giants, dwarves, and landvaettir (land spirits). To name a few. Before Grýla was associated with the Christmas season in what we assume was the sixteen hundreds, she was mentioned a few times in the Eddas and Sagas. But always referred to as a “troll” woman.
If you’re not familiar with Norse mythology, trolls were thought to be these large and ugly beings that lived in caves, rocky terrain, down cliffs, and in mountains. Their appearance often took on that of the land around them (think of the trolls in Frozen). Perhaps when our ancestors believed everything had a spirit, the troll was originally the spirit of the caves and mountains themselves.
I’d like to also point out something uncannily similar that is screaming at me with the Grýla myth. She isn’t the one and only Christmas witch or hag linked to the Yuletide season. We’ve talked at length about one of my matron goddesses, Berchta, in other posts and in the podcast. Berchta, also called Perchta, is an ugly hag who also descends from the Alpine mountains during Christmas time in Germany and other regions. She is the leader of the Perchten, a group of ugly, misshapen beings that look almost the same as Krampus. In addition, some of the legends claim Berchta carries a sack and will throw naughty children into it…later eating them. Sound familiar?
And since Berchta, the child-eating Christmas hag, is based on an ancient Germanic goddess it is possible that Grýla was once more than an ugly Christmas witch. Then again, the Norse peoples always believed in enemies and villains. So it’s also possible that Grýla and her Yule Cat and Yule Lords are simply an ages-old scary story that survives today in Icelandic Christmas lore.
More Christmas Yuletide Lore:
- Krampusnacht: 12 Ways to Celebrate Krampus
- The Wild Hunt and its Leaders, Odin and Gwynn Ap Nudd
- The Christmas Pickle Tradition: What is it and what to do