Saturday, January 22

Christmas in Europe: Iceland’s holiday traditions and why they have stood the test of time

While millions of children around the world eagerly await Father Christmas on Christmas Eve, young people in Iceland begin receiving their gifts on December 11.

That’s when the Yule Lads begin 13 nights of Icelandic home visitation, bringing little gifts to put in the shoes of well-behaved children.

Naughty kids, however, have something nasty about their shoes.

Who are the Yule Lads of Iceland?

All of these mischievous cheaters have unique names and personality traits, like Þvörusleikir the Spoon Licker; Pottaskeifill the Pot Licker; and Askasleikir the Bowl Licker (you can see a food-related pattern here!)

Some of the Yule boys cut sausages, devour skyr, or skim the best foam on top of the milk; and others slam doors, steal candles and look out your windows.

While the Yule Lads are considered quite harmless nowadays, it is their mother, the troll witch Grýla, who is truly terrifying: she will boil mischievous children alive, there is her lazy husband Leppalúði and their evil black cat who prowls Iceland and gets away. eat anyone not wearing. new garment at Christmas.

These homegrown Icelandic Christmas traditions have endured, even as the Western Christmas ideals of a decorated pine tree, Santa on his reindeer sleigh, and toy-making elves have become firmly established in many other countries.

“We really don’t have the American Santa Claus,” explains Dagrún Ósk Jónsdóttir, a folklorist at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.

“Many people are very proud of these Icelandic traditions and appreciate them very much. It’s also very visual, you have these events where the Yule Lads come, and in every milk carton in December you will see photos of them, ”she says.

The Evolution of Iceland’s Modern Christmas Traditions

Although the Yule Lads and their terrifying family seem to be deeply rooted in Iceland’s past, they are in fact a relatively new phenomenon in their current form.

The first written mention of Grýla appears in the 13th century, but at that time she is just a troll woman and is not connected to Christmas until the 17th century.

Meanwhile, the modern version of Yule Lads only really began to emerge in stories and poems written in the 19th and 20th centuries, although they certainly existed much longer than in oral storytelling traditions.

The number and nature of the Yule Lads have only really solidified in the last century and a half; before that, they were much more sinister, dressed entirely in black, with more gruesome character traits as well.

For example, the Lung-Splatterer was said to have his lungs on the outside of his body and he would run after misbehaving children and try to hit them with his flabby lungs.

As folklorist Dagrún Ósk Jónsdóttir explains, each parish had its own set of Yule Lads with its own traditions, but about 150 years ago an Icelandic poet chose the 13 that most appealed to him and brought them together in a family unit with Grýla, her husband and the cat.

“It’s around the same time that the Yule Lads started making better traditions, they started giving gifts to children, they weren’t the misbehaving thieves like they used to be,” she says.

“Before, people were afraid of them, but now they have adopted better forms to some extent, even if they still steal food, lock doors, and wake you up at night!”

How Christmas Traditions Adapt Even Into the 21st Century

Across Europe, Christmas traditions have evolved over the centuries, but we can thank Victorians for being responsible for shaping many of the most enduring Christmas images and activities.

Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, is credited with bringing the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree to England in the 1840s, while in southern Germany trees were already being decorated in the early 17th century, and the pivotal story of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, was first published in 1843..

The V&A Museum in London has a collection of 30,000 greeting cards and notes that its founding director sent the first mass-produced card.

The Victorians also introduced winter scenes with robins, holly trees, and snow-covered landscapes, and invented the Christmas cookie, and the depiction of Santa Claus as a jolly old man with a white beard and a red suit first became popular in the US. And Canada in the 1820s.

“It is true that popular traditions have to evolve and have relevance to society, otherwise they will simply be forgotten”, says Dagrún Ósk Jónsdóttir.

And Icelanders are also seeing some changes to reflect modern values ​​in their Christmas traditions, with Grýla’s cat becoming more environmentally conscious.

“You are supposed to buy a new piece of clothing for the Christmas Cat or else it will eat you. But now with more sense of the dangers for the planet of mass consumption, he too has become this advertising tool ”, explains Dagrún Ósk Jónsdóttir.

“Now Yule’s cat doesn’t care if you get used clothes, as long as it’s new to you.”

This is part of a series of five articles looking at how different parts of Europe mark Christmas. We will post a new one at 3pm CET every day this week.

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