While Santa Claus’ 13 reindeer fly him across the sky, the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads trod through deep snow, all the way from their cave in the mountains. According to legend, the Yule Lads, or “jólasveinar”, are the offspring of an awful child-eating ogress called Grýla and her good-for-nothing husband Leppalúði. Originally, at Yuletide, the Yule Lads came to town to steal food and terrorize children. Nowadays, they also leave presents in the shoes well-behaved children place in the window, starting 13 nights before Christmas.
The long trek is particularly difficult for the lad who arrives first, Stekkjastaur, or Stiff-Leggy. The poor fellow has wooden legs and his walking condition hasn’t exactly improved with the years. Last December 11th, when Stiff-Leggy was on his way into town, carrying a heavy bag loaded with presents, he decided to make a stop at a sheep farm along the way.
Apart from resting his weary legs, he wanted to see if he could find some milking ewes – he namely takes a special liking to ewe’s milk. Usually, though, the sheep are quick to escape between his wooden legs, and this year was no different.
Face-down in the snow, Stiff-Leggy was in a sour mood. When he eventually managed to scramble back on his feet, he noticed a friendly-looking horse in the stable in its fluffy winter coat. This reminded him of the Icelandic version of “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer”, in which helps pull Santa’s sleigh. It had started snowing and the wind was picking up – it looked like a snowstorm was brewing.
Night had fallen and Stiff-Leggy worried he might not make it into town on time. The horse neighed and Stiff-Leggy walked up to it, petting it clumsily. “What do you say, Fákur?” – Fákur was the name of the horse in the song – “Can you carry me into town?”
The horse neighed again and Stiff-Leggy took it as a “yes”. He let Fákur out of the box, picked up his heavy bag and tried to jump onto the horse’s back. To his surprise, Fákur stood still the whole time – much more manageable than those stubborn sheep! After several attempts, Stiff-Leggy finally managed to mount the horse.
He had never ridden before and felt rather nervous about the whole affair. Holding on to the horse’s mane with one hand and his bag with the other, he gave Fákur a nudge with his feet and said: “Ho, ho! Take me into town!”
Fákur ran out of the stable and down the hill, heading towards the lights of the town. Snowflakes flying in his face, Stiff-Leggy held on for dear life, bouncing up and down and nearly losing his balance – and the bag. Fákur took the shortest route, galloping across fields and jumping over ditches.
Flying through the air, Stiff-Leggy let out a shriek of terror, starting to regret his wild adventure. Suddenly, they were there, Fákur came to an abrupt stop and Stiff-Leggy slid off his back, landing in a snowdrift, his bag on top of him.
After recovering from the shock, Stiff-Leggy got up on his shaky feet and searched his bag for an old piece of bread he knew he had packed. “There!” he yelled out in excitement and gave it to Fákur, petting him lovingly. “Thanks for the ride,” he whispered into his ear. Thankful, Fákur quickly ate the bread, then neighed goodbye before running back to his farm. Watching the horse disappear, Stiff-Leggy waved goodbye before shakily continuing his mission. The following morning, no child was left disappointed, all thanks to Fákur.
Stories about the once scary Yule Lads and their fearful parents go back centuries. To make them even more terrifying, the troll family has a monstrous pet cat called Jólakötturinn (“The Yule Cat”), which ate the poorest of children who didn’t get any new clothes for Christmas. These tales were told in all parts of the country and the names of at least 80 Yule Lads are known, but in a poem by Jóhannes úr Kötlum from 1932 they were said to be 13. Around the same time, fishermen who had sailed to Europe brought back stories of the kind-hearted St. Nicholas who treated well-behaved children with presents before Christmas. Gradually, the image of the Yule Lads softened. While sticking to most of their mischievous ways, they began putting presents in the shoes of children, starting 13 nights before Christmas. The Yule Lads even started copying Santa’s look, dropping their traditional woollen clothing for a red overall.
By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photo by Gunnar Freyr Gunnarsson.