Holiday Horrors: Gryla and the Yule Lads [History]

“Mummy,” I heard the voice whisper to me from underneath the thick blanket. The wind was howling outside, causing branches to scratch against the window like little wooden claws trying to get in. “It is almost Christmastime! Do you think Santa will bring me presents?”

I smiled at the girl as I walked over to her bed. I reached down and stroked her hair, the only part of her head not covered by the heavy wool. Her head looked so small next to my hand. Again the wind shrieked. It almost sounded like it carried the sound of an angry cat with it.

“Well that depends,” I answered. “Have you been good this year?”

“I think so,” the little voice replied. “I mean, I did play a few pranks on my teacher. And daddy did yell at me a few times, but he does that a lot.”

I smiled, a crescent of razors. My hand, much larger than the girl’s head, grabbed it like the child would a toy ball. I easily lifted her up in front of my massive frame. Her scream sounded sweet.

One of the most terrifying Holiday Horrors I have come across is the story of Gryla, a giant from the hills of Iceland. Descriptions of Gryla vary. Some of them claim that she has horns and fangs, thirteen tails trailing behind her, and a wart-covered nose. Others claim that she is just a hideous, large woman, more an ogress than a giantess. No matter the description of her appearance, however, her motives and actions are always the same. Gryla is hungry, and her favourite treats are children.

The giant has the innate ability to sense whether or not children have been naughty throughout the year. Before the 17th century, Gryla would be indiscriminate in when she strolled into towns and feasted. However, as the strength of Christianity spread, and Christmas lore developed, Gryla started only coming down during the holiday season. She does not only eat children, though they are her favourite. Her hunger is so great, starved throughout the year, that she has even been known to eat her own husbands! Though I do not know why anyone would choose to marry her, she is currently on her third mate. Interestingly enough, Gryla does have thirteen children known as the Yule Lads.

Though the lore has varied in their number, thirteen is the usual amount of Yule Lads. In Icelandic folklore, these children of Gryla have taken the place of Santa Claus, though were originally (like many old folktales) quite monstrous, committing horrible acts of murder like dear old mum. Nowadays, the Yule Lads are gentle, and are seen “coming to town” thirteen days before Christmas Eve, one each day. They each stay for thirteen days before departing. They are pranksters, but they also leave gifts for good children in their shoes. The Lads are as follows, according to Wikipedia:

  1. Stekkjarstaur (December 12 – December 25): With the English translation meaning Sheep-Cote Clod, this Yule Lad harrasses the sheep of farmers, but has wooden legs and thus tends to struggle.
  2. Giljagaur (December 13 – December 26): Meaning Gully Gawk, this Lad hides in gullies (ditches made by running water) as he waits to steal milk.
  3. Stufur (December 14 – December 27): Stubby is as his name describes… short. He will steal pans from households to eat the stuck-on food.
  4. Þvörusleikir (December 15 – December 28): Spoon-Licker is the Lad who steals wooden spoons to… well to lick. He suffers from malnutrition.
  5. Pottaskefill (December 16 – December 29): Why steal spoons or pans, when you can be Pot-Scraper, who steals the leftovers from pots.
  6. Askasleikir (December 17 – December 30): Bowl-Licker waits under your bed until you set down your askur (a bowl with a lid), and takes it for himself.
  7. Hurðaskellir (December 18 – December 31): Door-Slammer likes to slam doors. These are very literal names for the Yule Lads.
  8. Skyrgámur (December 19 – January 1) : Skyr-Gobbler likes to steal skyr, an Icelandic yogurt that is mild in flavour and normally served cold.
  9. Bjúgnakrækir (December 20- January 2): Sausage-Swiper hides in your rafters and steals sausages as they are smoked.
  10. Gluggagægir (December 21- January 3): Window-Pepper is one of the only lads who is indiscriminate in what he steals. His trademark is looking through windows to find nice stuff.
  11. Gáttaþefur (December 22- January 4): Doorway-Sniffer has an abnormally large nose that he uses to find leaf bread, an Icelandic cake that is eaten around the holidays.
  12. Ketkrókur (December 23- January 5): Meat-Hook. Not much to this Yule Lad; he uses a hook to steal meat.
  13. Kertasníkir (December 24- January 6): Candle-Stealer follows children so he can steal and eat their candles. This was more practical back in the day, when candles were made of animal fat.

Though the now-gentle pranksters are not truly scary, one can only imagine what the thirteen descendants of a child-eating monster would do to a town, back in the day. Something that is interesting about the Gryla and Yule Lads myth is the number 13. Normally associated with bad luck and dark magic, it is not surprising that the monster of Christmas has thirteen tails, and thirteen children that stay for thirteen days.

Gryla and her children round up this year’s Holiday Horrors. A little bit of mischief mixed in with a terrifying creature who is never full. So don’t tell your children that it will just be coal that they receive from Santa if they are naughty. If they don’t behave, perhaps they will have a visit from the hungry giant, Gryla.

Written by D. William Landsborough
and published on his block