Christmas: Keyhole-Sniffer is just one of the lads

Icelanders still cling to their pre-Christian beliefs. Which is why you'd better beware the Yuletide Lads.

IT IS 21 days to Christmas, and, if you are Icelandic, you know what that means. In a little more than a week's time, the Yuletide Lads will wake up. One by one, they will leave their cave in the mountains and stealthily slink towards your home, bent on mischief.

The first Lad, Stump, (also known as Sheep-Cot Clod) will stagger down on his peg-leg and make a beeline for the barn to wreak havoc with the sheep. Then, for the 12 days leading up to Christmas, he will be joined, one a day, by his 12 brothers. By 25 December, all 13 will have arrived, slammed doors, stolen food and done unspeakable things to the furniture. Then they will leave again, one by one, until 6 January, in the reverse order of their arrival.

Their homeland has a fittingly raw nature. The island originally boiled up in the rift between the European and American continental plates and, since then, the geothermic activity has produced earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and, less threateningly, geysers. And the Icelanders have tried to make the best of the drama. They harnessed the geothermic energy to heat and power the south of the island; they swim around the year in pools fed by hot springs; and the Althing, their parliament (one of the oldest in the world), used to meet at the cliffs that mark the continental divide.

Iceland was officially Christianised in AD1000, just 126 years after it was first colonised by Norse settlers, but, try as it might, Christianity never really erased the old Viking beliefs. They were too much a part of the landscape, literally. Many Icelanders still believe that elves live in the huge boulders of the lava fields - construction workers are careful to get in someone who can "talk to the elves" before blowing anything up - and officially explain them as being some of Adam and Eve's "hidden children".

Then, of course, there are the Yuletide Lads. An integral part of the country's folklore, Icelanders have had to put up with the Yuletide Lads since the 17th century. They were apparently around before then, but they hadn't yet developed into their current roles. Tradition has it that their mother, Gryla is one of the nastiest, grungiest, scariest ogres in existence. First mentioned in writing in the 13th century, one 16th- century depiction shows her with 15 tails. Each tail has 100 sacks and in each sack are 20 naughty children who she will use to make Bad Kid Stew. In fact, she makes Santa and his little list look a bit wussy.

Like their cave-dwelling mum, the Lads were a product of their environment, rural Iceland. Each Lad did something guaranteed to harass an Icelandic farming family. Apart from the Sheep-Annoyer, there is: Sausage-Snatcher, Window-Peeper, Keyhole-Sniffer, Candle-Scrounger, Door-Slammer, Leg-of- Lamb-Swiper, and half a dozen other siblings so culture-specific that understanding exactly what they do would take a degree in Icelandic socio- cultural history.

Gryla and her boys were too successful as disciplinary tools to melt under the guiding light of Christianity. So, ever practical, the Icelanders simply changed them from an all-year threat to a seasonal hazard, the Yuletide Lads. And, in spite of a 1746 decree declaring it illegal to use them to scare children, they are still the preferred way of keeping children in line during the Christmas period.

Be good and on each of the 13 days leading up to Christmas you'll get a small present. Be bad, and Gryla will make you into stew. In a particularly clever twist, Gryla has a cat whose main job is to go after children who don't get new clothes for Christmas. It makes the young ones love those itchy new socks - you have to admire that level of child psychology.

So, where does that leave Santa? Well, they haven't really figured that one out. For a while, they tried putting the Yuletide Lads in red hats and sweaters, but it didn't really work. It's hard to be threatening and jolly at the same time. So while the Yuletide Lads make appearances in parks and schools and the streets of Reykjavik, Santas are mostly consigned to malls where, as one Icelander put it, "they usually just sing and play harmonica, that sort of thing".

Icelanders have made Christmas their own by seasoning it with beliefs that grew out of their own soil. So what if it is less sanitised and more earthy. Isn't that what belief should be all about?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links