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Victorian Era: Bad Boy Yule Lads Get Santa Makeover

Yule lads got a Santa Makeover during the Victorian Era.  Iceland’s 13 Yule Lads of today are jovial pranksters. On each of the 13 days before Christmas, these kinder, gentler Yule Lads deliver treats in the shoes left on windowsills of well-behaved children. What about naughty children? They find rotten potatoes in their shoes. The Victorian Era Bad Boy Yule Lads weren’t always so cute.

Even in their original form, the Bad Boy Yule Lads were not as terrible as some other Christmas-Winter characters. Perhaps the most terrifying among them was Krampus. He enforced Saint Nicholas’s Naughty list at Christmas with whips, chains and sacks to abduct bad children.

But the 13 Yule Lads were also not always so Christmas friendly. Prior to the Victorian Era, they had a sketchy past at best. In fact, they were among the most horrific perps from Icelandic folklore, dating back to pre-Christian times.

The Original 13 Yule Lads

They were the sons of two of the most hideous ogres ever known in Icelandic folklore: Grýla, was their mother, Leppalúði their father. Their original mission was to strike terror in the hearts of children. Surprisingly, even as the Yule Lads cast a dark cloud over villagers, they were used heartily by parents who wanted to frighten their children into behaving all year long.

Good Old-Fashioned Christmas Mayhem, Iceland Style

As the tale was told, every Christmas season Grýla (one of our favorite Women In History) descended from her mountain cave home. She brought  along her 13 sons and her murderous black cat. Grýla searched for naughty children. They weren’t hard to find.

Once in her sight, she shoved them in her sack and brought them back to her cave where she boiled them in her cauldron for a tasty Christmas stew.  We need not look too far to understand the dark  humor we see on Victorian Era Christmas cards.

Meanwhile, her 13 sons wreaked havoc on the town. They stole, vandalized, and terrified the villagers. (Little is said about their father’s activities, so you must use your imagination.)

Grýla’s enormous black cat prowled villages where he would eat anyone who was not wearing at least one new piece of clothing on Christmas Eve. This killer kitty became known as The Christmas Cat.

The Grinch Family Finally Gets The Christmas Spirit

Thanks to some concern by Icelandic authorities, a public decree was issued in 1746, prohibiting parents from terrorizing their children with fiendish folklore monsters. Included in the line-up of mental tortures were the 13 Yule Lads, their mom and her ferocious feline.

Why the big change? Some speculate that Iceland was feeling the pressure for popularity from the merry Santa Claus who was also evolving throughout Europe and other parts of the world. The nation of Iceland was also becoming more affluent.  As life became less harsh, so did Santa.

13 Yule Lads Get A Public Relations Makeover

By the Victorian Era, the murderous Yule Lads became more like the warm and fuzzy Santa Claus of Saint Nicholas fame. They stopped terrorizing children, although to this day, they continue to be thieving scoundrels. Even so, they are more akin to Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa than the serial killers of yore.

The 13 Yule Lads also cleaned up their act. They bathed and began to wear handsome red garments on special occasions, much like the Victorian Era Santa Claus. They began carrying small treats and surprises to place in the shoes of children who had been good all year.

Christmas Is Coming!

As with many folk legends, multiple versions of the Yule Lads developed over the years. They changed in number and names in different versions of the story.

In 1932, a popular poem was published about the 13 Yule Lads, Christmas Is Coming (Jólin koma) by Jóhannes úr Kötlum. It made the Yule Lads’ names and number better known. To this day, the names of the 13 Yule Lads that most Icelanders know are derived from Kötlum’s poem.

In Order Of Christmas Season Appearance…

The Thirteen Yule Lads appear in order, beginning on December 12th. Please note, most of their names convey their unique weakeness.

12/12-Sheep-Cote Clod: suckles sheep

12/13-Gully Gawk: steals foam off buckets of cow milk

12/14-Stubby: steals food from frying pans

12/15-Spoon Licker: licks spoons

12/16-Pot Licker: steals unwashed pots and licks them clean

12/17-Bowl Licker: steals bowls of food from under the bed

12/18-Door Slammer: stomps and slams doors, (like my neighbor!)

12/19-Skyr Gobbler: steals skyr (Icelandic yogurt)

12/20-Sausage Swiper: steals sausages

12/21-Window Peeper: peeps and steals what he sees inside

12/22-Door Sniffer: steals baked goods

12/23-Meat Hook: snatches unattended meat

12/24-Candle Beggar: steals candles

Why The Christmas Terrors In The First Place?

Some say that the early tale of the terrorizing 13 Yule lads was a metaphor for Iceland’s history.  The frosty island was not an easy land to settle and for hundreds of years, Icelanders barely eked out a living in the harsh environment.  There was little room for sentiment.  Horrible characters including the Yule lads mirrored the  harsh and frightening reality.

The Hidden People Born Of A Harsh Environment

According to Alda Sigmundsdottir in her book, The Little Book of the Hidden People: Twenty stories of Elves From Icelandic Folklore, “these harsh stories and characters who lived on the edge of Icelandic society reflected “the plight of a nation living in abject poverty on the edge of the inhabitable world, and its people’s heroic efforts to survive, physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

The Icelanders believed in a world that existed parallel to their own. The “hidden people”  lived in the hills and caves of that imaginary world.  They were close to the human homes, but somehow, they had it a lot better.  Their homes were furnished with fine, objects, their clothes were luxurious, their livestock was  fatter, their sheep yielded more wool and their crops were heartier.

The 13 Yule Lads of Today

If you should be so fortunate as to visit this desolate and frosty island, be sure to join in the Yule Lad’s Christmas preparation on November 28. You can also take part in their annual bath two weeks before Christmas. What better way to celebrate The Season?

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