So far in the pre-winter of 2019, Geezerville has already had lashings of snow. Then a dump of snow. Then a gentle frosting to make both lashings and dump look sweet and innocuous. Outside my office window, everything’s puffy and virginal. Christmas promises to be white as a Bing Crosby croon. As we Canadians hunker down for the Yuletide to come, let us raise a wassail bowl to the fact we don’t live in Iceland.
A few days ago, I took part in a storytelling event in my adopted hometown southeast of Whitehorse. The theme du jour was Nordic tales of Christmas and winter. My tale of choice concerned the troll/ogress/witch known as Grýla (“The Growler”), who has an insatiable appetite for disobedient children, and who roams Iceland’s towns and villages, trying to persuade parents to give up their disobedient offspring.
Each of her 15 tails carries 100 sacks; each sack contains as many as 20 naughty children destined for her stewpot. Grýla has a lazy, henpecked husband (her third; she ate the first, and no one knows the fate of the second) named Leppalúδi, who is a willing accomplice in her Sweeney Todd-like culinary pursuits. She also has a familiar, a monstrous, yellow-eyed feline named Jólakötturinn (the Yule Cat), who gobbles up anyone whose family members lack the foresight to outfit them with new clothes for Christmas.
Then, too, there are Grýla’s 13 sons (or brothers, depending on which version of Icelandic mythology you endorse).
Known collectively as the Yule Lads, these not-so-charming oafs emerge from their caves in the lava fields to pay Santa-like visits to Iceland’s children, who leave their shoes on the windowsill in hopes of Yule rewards. Like elements in an Advent calendar, the Lads emerge one-by-one, from Dec. 12 to Dec. 24.
Each has his own personality and quirks: Stúfar (Stubby) is a pan-scraper; Askasleikir licks bowls, even those left for dogs and cats; Skyrgámur gobbles up the yogurt-like Icelandic delicacy in the family pantry; Bjúgnakrækir steals sausages; Kertasníkir steals and eats the tallow candles.
Collectively, the Yule Lads can make or break a child’s Christmas. Just as Santa keeps his famous list (and checks it twice) of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, the Yule Lads of Iceland employ their spies to keep track of the good dudes and dudettes. But they don’t employ Santa’s annual tracking system, which gives you 182.5:182.5 odds of getting something other than coal in your stocking.
No, the Yule Lads of Iceland rate your performance daily over the 13 days leading up to Christmas Eve. If you’ve been good, you’ll get a small gift in your shoe. If not, you’ll get a rotten potato. Them’s the breaks, kids!