Celebrating Icelandic Christmas Tradition: The 13 Yule Lads of Iceland Skip to content

Celebrating Icelandic Christmas Tradition: The 13 Yule Lads of Iceland

Brian Pilkington has made a name for himself in Iceland as an illustrator of children’s books. He is particularly famous for his illustrations of trolls, which make these mysterious beings spring to life on the pages and spark renewed interest in Icelandic folk stories, both among natives and foreigners.

This time Pilkington gives life to the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads, the unruly sons of the ogre couple Grýla and Leppalúdi, who are Iceland’s answer to Santa Claus.

For most of the year, the Lads are locked up in a cave in the remote highlands. But in the days running up to Christmas they are allowed an outing. One by one they come to town. Cloaked by the winter darkness, they sneak into every house and play a prank on the inhabitants before leaving a little treat for the children in their shoes in the windowsill.

As in his other children’s books, Pilkington’s illustrations are cheerful, colorful and funny, including details to describe the characters of each Yule Lad and doing this amusing legend justice.

Pilkington also wrote the text for this book, introducing new stories about the Lads. Being a man of pictures rather than words, the text has a few shortcomings, although overall, it is an enjoyable read.

Pilkington reveals previously unknown and intimate details of the Yule Lads, concerning their life in the cave, Grýla’s cooking and her relationship with her sons, which can often be rather tense.

Aimed at the youngest readers, it is understandable that the stories need to be short and concise. But the style of writing could have been better thought through—and it really isn’t necessary to end every other sentence with an exclamation mark. It’s a bit as if you’re laughing at your own jokes.

The book has some clever little features, like the calendar counting down to Christmas, the explanation on how to spell “Merry Christmas” (“gledileg jól”) in Icelandic using sign language and the phrases at the end summing up each Yule Lad’s character.

And the additional illustrations, like the one of the Lads using Santa Claus’s picture as a dartboard is certain to make parents chuckle along with their children.

However, I didn’t really get the seemingly random symbols representing “suggested tasty treats” for each Lad. I get it that Skyrgámur (Skyr Glutton) prefers skyr (a special Icelandic dairy product), but why would he want cookies when Thvörusleikir (Spoon Licker) doesn’t? To rephrase, who doesn’t like cookies?

Also, I sometimes missed more detailed descriptions of Icelandic Christmas traditions. For example, one of the tasty treat symbols is laufabraud, a very special Icelandic Christmas bread, which is thin and crisp and carved with triangular patterns. But Pilkington calls it a pancake! Here, I find the use of an exclamation mark justifiable, because although Icelandic pancakes are thin they don’t look or taste anything like laufabraud. Gáttathefur (Door Sniffer) would never accept a boring old pancake if he could have laufabraud, so this is just falsification, if you ask me.

Apart from this “misunderstanding” I find Pilkington’s The 13 Yule Lads of Iceland a beautiful and enjoyable little book, which every child would be thrilled to read (and to discover that they’re actually entitled to presents in the 13 night preceding Christmas, not only on Christmas Day, so careful there, parents). It is a good introduction to Icelandic Christmas traditions, so adults are likely to find interesting too.

A reader asked me if this tradition is still practiced today. It absolutely is. The Yule Lads are known and cherished by Icelandic children, who excitedly place their shoes in the windowsills every night before Christmas, starting on December 11.

This tradition is actually growing in strength with the highly-popular Yule Lads in Dimmuborgir near Mývatn in northeast Iceland, who welcome visitors throughout December each year. People are even invited to take a bath with them in the Mývatn Nature Baths.

I applaud Pilkington for honoring Icelandic folk stories and legends through his books, and for introducing them to the world by publishing them in languages other than Icelandic. Despite its few flaws, The 13 Yule Lads of Iceland is another gem in his collection.

The 13 Yule Lads of Iceland is published both in Icelandic and English. The book is available here (email [email protected] if you have any questions).

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

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