The Icelandic Christmas legends might seem very dark and lacking in Christmas spirit to outsiders. But it's important to remember the tough existence they were born out of. The majority of Icelanders lived in extreme poverty in sod houses until the turn of the 20th century. As most of Icelandic folklore, these legends reflect the constant struggle of survival in a brutally harsh climate, through the long, dark winters.
The Yule Lads are the sons of two trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði. Judging by the lack of stories about him, it seems Leppalúði's only accomplishment in life was to have fathered the Yule Lads. Their mother Grýla however, is well known in her own right and there are many rhymes about her wicked ways. She is the scariest monster Icelandic folklore has produced. In some stories she's said to have a tail and hoofs instead of legs, in others she had more than one head. Whatever her appearance, she was the stuff nightmares are made of. She haunted down naughty kids the days before Christmas, put them in her sack to bring back to her cave, where she would eat them.
First mentions of Grýla date back to the 13th century. She's featured in a number of rhymes, among them this one, which names some of her other children beside the Yule Lads:
Grýla kallar á börnin sín. Grýla calls her children
Þegar hún fer að sjóða when she starts to cook
til jóla. for Christmas.
Komið þið hingað öll til mín, Come here all to me
Leppur, Skreppur, Leppur, Skreppur,
og Leiðindaskjóða. and Leiðindaskjóða.
Völustallur og Bóla, Völustallur and Bóla
og Sighvatur og Sóla. and Sighvatur and Sóla.
Grýla continues to inspire authors of poems and song texts, The book Jólin koma (Christmas is coming) by Jóhannes frá Kötlum, contains the well known poem about the Yule Lads, as well as a poem about Grýla, Leppalúði and the Yule Cat. In Jóhannes' poem about Grýla, she died due to a grave shortage of naughty kids, and Leppalúði passed as well a short while later. But Grýla has been sighted sporadically the days before Christmas in more recent years, so it seems the tales of her demise were greatly exagerated. Thankfully, she's changed her diet and no longer hunts down naughty children. Whether Leppalúði is alive or dead remains a mystery.
Grýla is also the subject of a song by Ómar Ragnarsson, Ó Grýla, featured on one of his children's Christmas albums from the 1970's where she's depicted in a more comical light than in the old rhymes. In the song, Grýla does little else than cook mountains of food for the Yule Lads and scores of trolls, her hair a tangled mess like barbed wire. Leppalúði even gets a mention as well in that song:
Og hjá þeim Grýlu og Leppalúða For Grýla and Leppalúði
ei linnir kífinu, the quarrels go on,
þótt hann Grýlu elski alveg although he loves Grýla
út úr lífinu. with all his heart.
Hann eltir hana eins og flón, He follows her around like a fool
þótt ekki sé hún fríð. though a beauty she is not
Í sæluvímu sama lagið Blissfully singing
syngur alla tíð: the same song forever:
Ó Grýla, ó Grýla, ó Grýla, Oh Grýla
ég elska bara þig. You're the only one I love
The Icelandic Christmas Legends ornaments from Raven Design, featuring Grýla, Leppalúði, the Yule Lads and the Yule Cat are now available in my online shop. Shipping is available to Europe and N-America, if your country is not listed, but you would like to buy the ornaments send me a line at email@example.com.