Kids everywhere know the story of Santa Claus, the jolly fat man who flies all around the world in a reindeer-drawn sleigh delivering presents every December 24. But what if Santa wasn’t such a nice guy? What if he played pranks on bad kids and even stole from the houses he visited? And what if he wasn’t just one man visiting for one night, but a pack of 13 unruly brothers who camped out in your home causing trouble for weeks? Well, that’s just what kids in Iceland have to deal with every winter when the Yule Lads pay their annual visit!
Who are the Yule Lads? Imagine Santa’s shorter, grubbier, trouble-making cousins and you won’t be far off. The Yule Lads first appeared in Icelandic folklore in the 1600s as the sons of Gryla, a fearsome troll lady with a reputation for snatching naughty children. Originally, the 13 men were used to scare children into behaving; folks said that the Yule Lads would throw disobedient kids in a sack and deliver them to their troll parents! Personally, I’d rather have pizza delivered.
But over the last hundred years, the Yule Lads have mellowed, cutting ties with their vicious mother and father. They have remained mischievous pranksters, though—and they still occasionally hang out with the Yule Cat, an oversized kitty that chases children who haven’t received new clothes for Christmas. Better ask for socks this year!
According to tradition, the first Yule Lad makes the long trek from the mountains to the farmsteads below on the morning of December 12, followed by one brother per day for the 13 days leading to Christmas. Each brother stays for two weeks and arrives according to a strict schedule.
Much to the delight of their human hosts, the Yule Lads start departing for their mountain home again—one at a time in the order in which they arrived—on Christmas Day, with the last brother heading back to the mountains on Twelfth Night (January 6).
Despite their love for mischief—and food—the Yule Lads are not all bad. For one thing, they give presents. Icelandic children who place a shoe on their windowsill each night will awaken to find a small gift (if they’ve been good) or an old potato (if they’ve been not so good) inside.
That means that good Icelandic children can get up to 13 presents from the Yule Lads before Christmas even arrives! Perhaps the gifts make all the pranks worth suffering through. Unless all the presents are rotten potatoes, that is.