Yes, it’s another Iceland post. I’ve got to mine as many blogs as possible out of that trip. Fortunately, Iceland provides a rich mine of paranormal goodness, and Icelandic holiday traditions are no exception.
True confession: I’m a sucker for Christmas decorations. My mother decked the halls starting December 1st, weighting tables with Christmas cookies and other sweets. And when I travel, I’m always on the lookout for local holiday décor.
So I had high hopes for Iceland, which I’d heard does Christmas well. And when I read that Iceland had its own tradition of the 13 Yule Lads, who put gifts into the shoes of the good children and raw potatoes into the shoes of the naughty, visions of quaint-looking Christmas gnomes danced through my head.
But… Christmas in old Iceland was a dark dangerous time, when the bitter cold culled the human herd. So Iceland’s Christmas traditions are appropriately spooky. [Tweet this!]
Now, 13 Yule Lads means 13 days of presents, which I find frankly awesome. The 13 Yule Lads are mischievous, with goofy names: Gully Gawk, Spoon Licker, Titch, Curd Slurper, Key Hole Sniffer, Pot Licker, Bowl Licker, Sheep Worrier, Door Slammer, Window Peeper, Sausage Swiper, Candle Beggar and Meat Hook. But while the Yule Lads have quaint sounding names, they’re not quaint – they’re troll-like. In fact, their creepy, outre appearance is more suited to Halloween. For me, Christmas magic has a lighter feel. As much as I love Halloween, I just can’t bring myself mix the two holidays. Also, the only matched set of Yule Lads that I actually liked came in over $500, well outside of this writer’s budget.
So I turn to another Christmas figure, the she-ogre Gryla, who’s the mother of the Yule Lads… Or at least she became their mother in the 17th century, when she became linked to Christmas. But Gryla is much older than that. The earliest references to her are in the 13th century Islendinga and Sverris sagas. (They’re on my Christmas list).
My Iceland Air magazine tries to rehabilitate Gryla as a figure of female empowerment; she is connected to the goddesses Freyja and Hel, the latter who rules the world of the dead. Gryla also rules her own household. But she also kidnaps and eats children for Christmas; the Gryla figures I find carry a sack with a child’s feet sticking out the top. I buy an $8 salt and pepper set of Gryla and her hapless husband, Leppalúði – all I can afford at Icelandic prices.
(But seriously, must we turn Gryla into some sort of heroic figure just because she’s a woman? Can’t women be horrifying, too? Answer: yes, we can. I think Gryla would be proud to have been blamed by the Onion for the eruption of Iceland’s volcano, Eyjafjallajökull).
Gryla is also accompanied by her ferocious black cat. Known as the Christmas Cat, this creature is not a cozy feline curled up by the fire. The examples I find are mangy, terrifying. One looks more like an angry rat. According to legend, all Icelandic children are expected to receive at least one pair of clothing for Christmas, and if you don’t, the Christmas Cat will eat you. A good way, I suppose, to keep kids from complaining about those knitted socks from Aunt Frida.
IcelandairInfo. “Maneater. Is Yuletide Ogre Gryla Really Fit for Christmas?” August 2013: 36-37.
About the Author:
Kirsten Weiss writes paranormal mystery novels. Please buy them.