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This Does Not Happen On Washington Island…I Think

Those of you who have picked up the current copy of Door County Living magazine and have taken the time to peruse (if not read, cover to cover) the content know that one of the included features is about the Icelandic settlement on Washington Island. So with Iceland on my mind and my ongoing attempts to get motivated for the holiday season (which has apparently already arrived) allow me to share the following rather unusual holiday traditions that occur exclusively on that tiny, frozen, volcanic clump of rock in the north Atlantic.

We begin with the Jólasveinar, which translates as the “Yule Lads.” While their name might suggest a Christmas-themed boy band, they are actually trolls (in their more mild form they are merely imps) that live on the island. Originally these trolls were blamed for any trouble that occurred during the Christmas season and were used to scare children into behaving.

The Yule Lads are featured on a set of Icelandic stamps.

The Jólasveinar first appear in the 17th century and reportedly the sons of Gryla and Leppalúøi, a couple with a fondness of stealing and eating children. This happy couple had either nine or 13 sons, known collectively as the “Yule Lads” (thus, because of the number, the “Yule Lads” could never have been a boy band – though they could conceivably form a nice Christmas chorus).

With Iceland’s long affiliation with Norway, tales of the Norwegian figure of Julenisse (read Santa Claus), who brought gifts to “good” children, infiltrated the island’s holiday traditions. So for a time, the Jólasveinar and Julenisse co-existed, with the former a threat and the latter a reward.

Eventually, the traditions became merged, and the formerly naughty Jólasveinar began leaving gifts in the shoes left out by children. Indeed, this nice version of the Jólasveinar originally left gifts for the 13 days leading up to Christmas Day, with a different Jólasveinar brother leaving the gifts each night.

While the Jólasveinar number 13 is the most common tradition, there are more than 70 different names for the individual brothers. Below is a list of names attributed to the brothers (along with the English equivalent) showing the day they are responsible for bestowing gifts.

Dec. 12: Stekkjarstaur, Gimpy

Dec. 13: Giljagaur, Gully Imp

Dec. 14: Stúfur, Itty Bitty

Dec. 15: Pvörusleikir, Pot Scraper Licker

Dec. 16: Pottasleikir, Pot Licker

Dec. 17: Askasleikir, Bowl Licker

Dec. 18: Huröaskellir, Door Slammer

Dec. 19: Skyrgåmur, Skyr Gobbler*

Dec. 20: Bjúgnakraekir, Sausage

Dec. 21: Gluggagaegir, Window Peeper

Dec. 22: Gåttabefur, Doorway Sniffer

Dec. 23: Ketkrókur, Meat Hooker

Dec. 24: Kertasnikir, Candle Beggar

*Skyr is an Icelandic yogurt

But the Jólasveinar isn’t the only Icelandic creation to keep children well behaved. The island also has a long tradition surrounding Jólakötturinn, the Yule or Christmas Cat. As you have probably surmised, Jólakötturinn isn’t your typical house cat: this cat is known to eat children.

In this tradition, Icelanders who work hard and finish all their work are rewarded with new clothes at Christmas; those individuals who are lazy or don’t finish their work don’t get new clothes.

So when you are a parent, living on a frozen, volcanic island in the north Atlantic you tell children the story of Jólakötturinn, and point out that if said cat comes around and doesn’t notice at least one piece of new clothing in your child’s wardrobe, the cat will eat them!

Now if you’re a regular reader of this column, you will remember that I have reported numerous holiday traditions from countries across the globe that use fear (often gruesome threats!) to encourage their children to behave. So the Icelanders aren’t alone.

And like the Jólasveinar, the Christmas Cat has mellowed through the years as can be witnessed by the poem that ends this column. Note that at the end of the poem children are encouraged to help the less fortunate so they too can have new clothes and avoid the perils of Jólakötturinn!

You all know the Yule Cat

And that Cat was huge indeed.

People didn’t know where he came from

Or where he went.

He opened his glaring eyes wide,

The two of them glowing bright.

It took a really brave man

To look straight into them.

His whiskers, sharp as bristles,

His back arched up high.

And the claws of his hairy paws

Were a terrible sight.

He gave a wave of his strong tail,

He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.

Sometimes up in the valley,

Sometimes down by the shore.

He roamed at large, hungry and evil

In the freezing Yule snow.

In every home

People shuddered at his name.

If one heard a pitiful “meow”

Something evil would happen soon.

Everybody knew he hunted men

But didn’t care for mice.

He picked on the very poor

That no new garments got

For Yule – who toiled

And lived in dire need.

From them he took in one fell swoop

Their whole Yule dinner

Always eating it himself

If he possibly could.

Hence it was that the women

At their spinning wheels sat

Spinning a colorful thread

For a frock or a little sock.

Because you mustn’t let the Cat

Get hold of the little children.

They had to get something new to wear

From the grownups each year.

And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve

And the Cat peered in,

The little children stood rosy and proud

All dressed up in their new clothes.

Some had gotten an apron

And some had gotten shoes

Or something that was needed

– That was all it took.

For all who got something new to wear

Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp

He then gave an awful hiss

But went on his way.

Whether he still exists I do not know.

But his visit would be in vain

If next time everybody

Got something new to wear.

Now you might be thinking of helping

Where help is needed most.

Perhaps you’ll find some children

That have nothing at all.

Perhaps searching for those

That live in a lightless world

Will give you a happy day

And a Merry, Merry Yule.