Christmas Trolls

12 12 john bauer 1914In the UK, we only have one Santa Claus, who brings gifts to good children on December 25th, but in Iceland there are thirteen Christmas Trolls called the Yule Lads. Today, children in Iceland can expect a visit from the first of the Yule Lads. They will have left their shoes on the windowsill before going to bed. In the morning, if they were good yesterday, they will find sweets or a small gift. If they were bad, they will find a rotten potato.

A different Yule Lad will arrive in your town or village every day up until Christmas Eve. All thirteen of them will be around on Christmas day. Then, on Boxing day, they will begin to leave, one each day, in order of their arrival. The last leaves on January 6th, which is the traditional date of Epiphany. The motives of the Yule Lads have not always been good. Traditionally they were mischief-making trolls who were there to steal things from you, or perhaps for something even worse. But, in more recent times, they have become more benevolent and taken on some of the characteristics of Santa Claus. This does not stop children from being rather afraid of them though. Having lots of trolls hanging around your house for weeks at a time is never a good thing.

12 12 hungry troll theodor kittelsenOn December 12th, you can expect a visit from Stekkjarstaur, whose name is translated as Sheep Cote Clod. This is bad news if you keep sheep because he will hang around trying to steal the milk from their udders. Luckily, he has difficulty doing this because he had stiff legs and can’t bend down very well. On subsequent days, you can expect visits from trolls who will steal milk from the dairy, scrape out all your pans, lick all your spoons, steal your leftovers and take the pot of food that you have hidden under your bed for later. The seventh visitor will be Door Slammer, who obviously likes to loudly slam all your doors, especially at night. After that you will find that you have been visited by a troll who has eaten all your skyr, which is a bit like yoghurt and very precious indeed. Then you need to look out for the Sausage Swiper. He will sit in your rafters and try to steal the smoked sausages that you have hanging there. Worryingly, your tenth unwelcome guest will be the Window Peeper. Not only will he look through your windows looking for something to steal, he might want to watch you while you get undressed for bed too. Perhaps the weirdest of the thirteen though, appears on the eleventh night. He has an enormous nose and his name is Doorway Sniffer. Next comes Meat Hook. He has a pretty scary name, but what he does is sit in your chimney and reach down with his hook to steal the meat that you are smoking there. If you are lucky, his hook will not be long enough. The final visitor is Kertasníkir, Candle Stealer. As there was once a time when candles were the only available light in the dark winter, they were extremely important. For a child to lose their candle to Kertasníkir was a terrible thing. I don’t think trolls need light particularly, but those candles would have been made of tallow, which is animal fat. So he probably wants to eat them.

These thirteen visitors, their names and characteristics were fixed by a poem called ‘Jólasveinarnir’, which was published in 1932 by a poet called Jóhannes úr Kötlum. It is probably as well known in Iceland as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ is here. The trolls are the sons of the mythical giantess Grýla. She has an extremely long history and is mentioned in Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, which dates from the thirteenth century. As I explained back in September, Snorri’s Prose Edda is a companion book to the Poetic Edda, which is full of pre-christian beliefs, so she is doubtless much older than that. Grýla is, in legend, an extremely unpleasant figure. Like Santa, she is keeping an eye on children all year to see if they are good or not. But she doesn’t want to bring them a present. If children are bad or rude or lazy, she will come down from her mountain home, carry them off, stew them up and eat them. She only wants to eat bad children, because they taste the best.

In the thirteenth century she was described as having fifteen tails. Four hundred years later, she had a hundred bags tied to each tail, with each bag containing twenty naughty children for her pot. It seems there was no short supply of naughty children in the seventeenth century. In those days, both Grýla and her marauding sons were out for blood. Children were terrified and, by 1746, things had got so out of hand that a public decree was issued forbidding parents to scare their children with any more stories of Grýla and her sons. But in the nineteenth century, along with so much else, they received a bit of a Victorian style makeover and became less threatening.

12 12 scary cat theodor kittelsenGrýla and the Yule Lads do not live alone in the mountains. Grýla has a husband called Leppalúði, who seems to be basically just a bit lazy and stupid. He is her third husband, she ate the other two. They also have a cat. As you might expect, the cat is also not very nice. You may spot the Yule Cat lurking about on December 24th. It is looking for people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. If it finds someone, it will eat them. The threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was extremely useful to farmers who were trying to get their workers to finish processing that year’s wool before Christmas Day.

As I said earlier, in 1932, the number of Yule Lads was fixed at thirteen, but originally there were many more of them to worry about. Grýla may have had up to eighty children. Of the ones that didn’t make the cut are Lampshadow, who would put out all your lights, Smoke Gulper, who would sit on your roof and gulp the smoke from the chimney and one called Litlipungur, whose name translates as ‘small balls’ and I’ve no idea what he did. There were also two sisters called Flotsokka and Flotnös who inexplicably liked to try to put a piece of fat on a half knitted sock or put a piece of fat up her nose. There was a troll called Flórsleikir, whose name means ‘dung channel licker’, but luckily, they mean the one in the cowshed. Most frightening of all though is Lungnaslettir which means ‘lung splatter’ he would carry his lungs in front of his chest and use them to beat children with. Sleep well everyone. x

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