Meet the Thirteen Yule Lads, Iceland’s Own Mischievous Santa Clauses

The Yule Lads used to be a lot more creepy than they are today, too, but in 1746 parents were officially banned from tormenting their kids with the stories

Iceland in the winter
Iceland in wintertime Arctic-images via Getty

Icelandic children get to enjoy the favors of not one but 13 Father Christmases. Called the Yule Lads, these merry but mischievous fellows take turns visiting kids on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. On each of those nights, children place one of their shoes on the windowsill. For good boys and girls, the Yule Lad will leave candy. If not, the Yule Lads are not subtle in expressing their disapproval: They fill the shoe with rotting potatoes.

Don't think well-behaved Icelandic kids have a sweet deal all around, however. They may enjoy 13 Santa Claus-like visits, but they also have to contend with a creature called Grýla who comes down from the mountains on Christmas and boils naughty children alive, and a giant, blood-thirsty black kitty called the Christmas Cat that prowls around the country on Christmas Eve and eats anyone who's not wearing at least one new piece of clothing.

Apparently, the Yule Lads used to be a lot more creepy than they are today, too, but in 1746 parents were officially banned from tormenting their kids with monster stories about those particular creatures. Today, they're mostly benign—save for the harmless tricks they like to play.

Like Snow White's Seven Dwarfs, each of the Yule Lads has his own distinct personality. Their names, however, remained a point of much interpretation and debate until recently. As the National Museum of Iceland describes:  

Dozens of different names for the Yule Lads appear in different folk tales and stories. A popular poem about the Yule Lads by the late Jóhannes úr Kötlum, which first appeared in the book Jólin koma (Christmas Is Coming) in 1932, served to make their names and number much better known. The names of the 13 Yule Lads that most Icelanders know today are all derived from that poem.

Today, as the museum describes, the Yule lads are: 

  • Sheep-Cote Clod: He tries to suckle yews in farmer's sheep sheds

  • Gully Gawk: He steals foam from buckets of cow milk

  • Stubby: He's short and steals food from frying pans

  • Spoon Licker: He licks spoons

  • Pot Scraper, aka Pot Licker: He steals unwashed pots and licks them clean 

  • Bowl Licker: He steals bowls of food from under the bed (back in the old days, Icelanders used to sometimes store bowls of food there—convenient for midnight snacking?)

  • Door Slammer: He stomps around and slams doors, keeping everyone awake 

  • Skyr Gobbler: He eats up all the Icelandic yogurt (skyr)

  • Sausage Swiper: He loves stolen sausages 

  • Window Peeper: He likes to creep outside windows and sometimes steal the stuff he sees inside

  • Door Sniffer: He has a huge nose and an insatiable appetite for stolen baked goods

  • Meat Hook: He snatches up any meat left out, especially smoked lamb 

  • Candle Beggar: He steals candles, which used to be sought-after items in Iceland

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