Here we have the legend of Iceland’s Christmas Cat – a creature that lurks in the shadows around Christmas time trying to find a tasty human morsel to devour! If I was the size of a mouse, I’d be more worried about this cryptozoology wonder, but according to our Icelandic friends, this killer feline is bigger than you might guess! How did this legend ever get started? Read on!
The Icelandic legend of the Christmas Cat (also called the Yule Cat, or Jolakotturinn), revolves around a huge cat that purportedly hunts down people who haven’t received a new piece of clothing for Christmas. I know, that hardly seems like grounds for the death penalty, right? Let’s look into this bazaar tale a bit more and see it if it makes more sense.
The Icelandic people celebrate Christmas starting from December 23 through and including January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. They go to Church, enjoy grand meals as well as the fellowship that comes from the festive, holy season.
However, instead of Santa Claus visiting the children on that hallowed 24th night of December, they are visited 13 times by one of 13 Yule Lads. The children leave their shoes out for all 13 nights starting December 12th, and each night they receive a different little gift, sometimes just candies and treats.
Yes, instead of Santa Claus, Icelandic children look forward to visits from each of the 13 Yule Lads. That is, if they’ve been good. If they’ve been naughty, they get rotten potatoes in their shoes. Let me introduce you to the 13 Lads:
Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod): Has stiff peg-legs that don’t stop him from harassing sheep. Arrives 12/12.
Giljagaur (Gully Gawk): Found hiding in gullies as he waits for a chance to sneak into a barn and steal some milk. Arrives 12/13.
Stufur (Stubby): Very short guy who likes to steal pans with the remains of crusts on them, to eat. Arrives 12/14.
Pvorusleikir (Spoon-Licker): Suffers from malnutrition due to the fact he only licks spoons to obtain his food. Not kidding – this is what folklore says. Arrives 12/15.
Pottasleikir (Pot-Licker): Clearly someone needs to wash the dishes more quickly! This poor guy steals any food left in the stove pots. Arrives 12/16.
Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker): Steals bowls that people leave behind. Hides under beds waiting for his chance. Arrives 12/17.
Hurdaskellir (Door Slammer): Enjoys slamming doors at night. Arrives 12/18.
Skyrgamur (Skyr Gobbler): He loves skyr so he steals all he can to eat. Skyr is an Icelandic type yogurt with a milder taste than regular yogurt, and it’s very nutritious. Skyrgamur needs to share with Pvorusleikir!) Arrives 12/19.
Bjugnakraekir (Sausage Swiper): Steals smoked sausages while hiding in the rafters. Arrives 12/20.
Gluggagaegir (Window Peeper): Peers through windows scouting for objects to steal. Arrives 12/21.
Gattapefur (Doorway Sniffer): His enlarged nose and keen sense of smell help him find his much loved laufabraud (a Christmas bread treat). Arrives 12/22.
Ketkrokur (Meat Hooker): Steals meat with his handy dandy meat hook. Arrives 12/23.
Kertasnikir (Candle Stealer): Follows children trying to steal their candles. Back in the day the candles were made of tallow, so they were edible. Blech!) Arrives 12/24.
My apologies to the Icelandic – these names are hard to master and I can’t type the letters properly because my keyboard only does English.
So where does the Christmas Cat fit in? Well he belongs to the Ogress who is the mother of the Yule Lads. Her name is Gryla and she is believed to be part Troll, part animal. Her third husband, Leppaludi, lives with them. He’s not so much evil as he is lazy. Gryla is definitely more evil.
Every Christmas, Gryla and her Lads come down out of the mountains. She searches for naughty children to boil in her cauldron, while the Lads are looking for some mischief.
Their gigantic cat seems to operate on its own, searching for anyone who didn’t receive new clothing for Christmas. If they didn’t, they’re fair game for this carnivorous cat!
People who know say this legend didn’t appear on the scene until the 19th Century when poet Johannes ur Kotlum penned this little ditty:
You all know the Yule Cat
And that Cat was huge indeed.
People didn’t know where he came from
Or where he went.
He opened his glaring eyes wide,
The two of them glowing bright.
It took a really brave man
To look straight into them.
He gave a wave of his strong tail,
He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.
Sometimes up in the valley,
Sometimes down by the shore.
He roamed at large, hungry and evil
In the freezing Yule snow.
In every home
People shuddered at his name.
He picked on the very poor
That no new garments got
For Yule – who toiled
And lived in dire need.
From them he took in one fell swoop
Their whole Yule dinner
Always eating it himself
If he possibly could.
Because you mustn’t let the Cat
Get hold of the little children.
They had to get something new to wear
From the grownups each year.
And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve
And the Cat peered in,
The little children stood rosy and proud
All dressed up in their new clothes.
For all who got something new to wear
Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp
He then gave an awful hiss
But went on his way.
Whether he still exists I do not know.
But his visit would be in vain
If next time everybody
Got something new to wear.
Now you might be thinking of helping
Where help is needed most.
Perhaps you’ll find some children
That have nothing at all.
Perhaps searching for those
That live in a lightless world
Will give you a happy day
And a Merry, Merry Yule.
But it may have been a very old story that was part of oral tradition, and not written down until Mr. ur Kitlum got around to it. If I’m not mistaken, it took a long time before the old Viking sagas were written down, so there is precedence for that.
Anyway, if you want to feel more safe and secure, get yourself a new pair of socks or a new sweater! This will ensure that any kitty cat crossing your path will leave you alone, safe and sound. (Unless you own it, of course! 😉 )