In which we discover how much damage elves and curses can do, how even powerful beings can suffer and that mysterious housekeepers often have a hidden agenda. In addition, we learn that if you have a useful magic stone you should always put it in your pyjama pockets whilst you sleep. Just in case.
A Wonder of Elves
I hope you enjoyed the story. There is a very special place in my heart for fairies under the hill stories. I read folk and fairy tales from a young age and somehow managed to absorb the idea that elves and fairies were powerful folk, to be treated with respect. I was somehow never very comfortable with the infantalised sparkly versions although I did adore the Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies. My current attitude can be summed up by this quote from Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies:
“Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.”
I think our story also reinforces this message whilst allowing that sometimes elves actually do reward people with things they need rather than the things they think they want. It also demonstrates that those with power only care about what they want and don’t think about the damage they do to others.
The Icelandic Christmas Experience
I enjoyed the tale though and the opportunity it provided to look into some Icelandic history of which I knew very little. It also gave me the chance to explore and revel in the folklore and food of an Icelandic Christmas. I wanted to leave straight away and have the whole experience from the beginning of Advent to Twelfth Night. It has every aspect of Christmas that I love except for the fermented skate. We’ll get to that later.
Trolls get Everywhere
We should first take a look at Icelandic Christmas folklore of which there is much, most of it quite scary! Before I start, I will note that Iceland was peopled in the 10th Century by people from Norway and Norwegian influenced parts of Scotland such as Orkney and Celtlic people mainly from Ireland and Wales. This probably has influenced quite how many trolls appear in their folklore.
From Cheese Balls to Poetry & Myth
There’s another reason I’ve enjoyed researching this, I’ll try and sum it up. In 2015, in the run up to Christmas whilst preparing three different types of cheese balls I found myself listening to Yuletide in the Land of Ice & Fire on the radio. It’s a wonderful programme where acclaimed Icelandic poet and author Gerður Kristný journeys into the curious world of Iceland’s Christmas myths. It’s beautiful, accompanied by music, sound, poetry and accounts from Icelanders which bring the tales to life. I love it and listen to it every Christmas and its still available to listen to on BBC Sounds if anyone is interested. Anyway this episode has made me delve further into this wonderful festive folklore.
Christmas Begins on 11 December
Enough procrastinating, lets begin where Christmas starts in Iceland on 11 December and take our first look at the Jólasveinar or Yule Lads, troll-like figures who creep down from the mountains one by one over the thirteen nights before Christmas to make mischief. In their current incarnation, possibly influenced by Santa Claus, they are more playful & play pranks and leave presents on each night of their visit in children’s shoes. If the children have been badly behaved then they get a potato.
A Collection of Yule Lads
Each Yule-Lad has a different purpose, there were originally more but they have been phased out in modern times. The current thirteen are mostly food focussed and here they are in order of appearance:
Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod / Dec 12th
Stekkjastaur is found breaking into the sheep pens. He keeps trying to suckle the ewes, despite his two stiff legs that make him unable to bend low enough..
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk / Dec 13th
Giljagaur waits until the farm workers are distracted before he swoops in and slurps the froth off the fresh milk.
Stúfur – Stubby / Dec 14th
Stúfur is named for his small stature. His favourite food is the burnt bits of food that get stuck to the pan and he raids kitchens for dirty pans to get his hands on the good stuff.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon Licker / 15th
Þvörusleikir is tall and skinny.. He waits patiently for the work to be finished in the kitchen before taking advantage of any distraction to grab the dirty spoons and lick them.
Pottaskefill – Pot Licker / Dec 16th
This Yule Lad also likes to lick the remains from the inside of the pots, but unlike his fellow is not interested in the burnt bits. Instead he knocks at the door, and when the inhabitants rush to see who it is, he sneaks to the kitchen and cleans out the pots.
Askasleikir – Bowl Licker / Dec 17th
In time gone past, Icelanders ate their food from a lidded wooden bowl called “askur,”. This Yule Lad would creep in,hide, and then snatch the askar whenever they were put down, licking their insides clean. He’d probably be called plate licker now but the old name has stuck.
Hurðaskellir – Door Slammer / Dec 18th
Hurðaskellir thinks it is hilarious to make people jump or awaken from sleep by making loud noises and goes through town slamming doors for his own amusement.
Skyrgámur – Skyr Gobbler / Dec 19th
Skyr might be a relatively new arrival to the UK but in its birthplace it is much enjoyed. This Yule Lad is known for being the largest and roundest of the thirteen due to his bad habit of stealing and eating other people’s skyr.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper / Dec 20th
Once you know that Bjúga is a salty, smoked Icelandic sausage, you can see the origin of Bjúgnakrækir’s name. He often looks the dirtiest of the Yule Lads because he is very prepared to break into smoke-houses full of smoke and soot to get to them.
Gluggagægir – Window Peeper / Dec 21st
It’s important to note that although this particular Yule Lad has dishonourable intentions, they are thankfully food-related. He only peeps in windows to find food to steal.
Gáttaþefur – Door Sniffer / Dec 22nd
Gáttaþefur has a huge nose, and an excellent sense of smell, as well as the useful ability to never catch a cold. He is partial to laufabrauð, a delicacy we’ll discuss later, and uses his abnormally large nose to sniff it out.
Ketkrókur – Meat Hook / Dec 23rd
Ketkrókur travels with a long stick with a hook at the end, perfect for sticking it down chimneys in order to steal meat, preferably hangikjöt (smoked lamb). He never troubles vegetarians being totally meat focussed.
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar / Dec 24th
Kertasníkir enjoys stealing candles, preferably from children. I know this doesn’t seem food focussed or particularly mischievous but candles used to be made from animal fat and a candle was sometimes the only present that a child got!
A Change of Perspective
The Yule Lads are now fairly benign characters but they used to be considered evil. They didn’t bring presents and in a poor subsistence economy, food theft during winter was one of the worst crimes that could be committed as for some it would mean death by starvation. Icelandic parents used to use them to scare children but these days they are more concerned about the appearance of a potato in the shoe than the Yule Lads themselves so they are an effective way to encourage good behaviour as like Santa, you can’t lie to a Yule Lad.
Incredibly Scary Parents
The parents of the Yule Lads and their cat are however much scarier. Their mother is the evil ogress Grýla and their father is Leppalúði, who is also evil but also very lazy. Grýla is particularly frightening and there are many stories of her hunting down children to take back to her cave, to cook them and eat them. Leppalúði isn’t that fussed about eating children but he will help his wife pop them in the pot.
Very Scary Cat
Jólaköttinn or Yule Cat is their pet and prowls the countryside looking for lazy people to eat or those who don’t have new clothes to wear for Christmas. Some people believe that the Christmas Cat just eats the Christmas dinner of those without new clothes for Christmas but that’s pretty bad too!
There is a suggestion that farmers used the tale of the Yule Cat to scare their workers into working harder and finishing processing the wool harvest before Christmas as only the hardest workers would be rewarded with new clothes, and the lazy ones would be left without. This would make them vulnerable to Jolakottinn.
You might enjoy this poem by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, recently translated by Thor Ewing
The Yule Cat (Jólaköttinn)
You’ve heard about the Yule Cat —
He really was immense;
Nobody knew where he came from,
Nobody knew where he went.
He’d flash his eyes wide open
And both were glowing bright;
It was not for the faint-hearted
To face that awful sight.
His whiskers sharp as meat-hooks,
His back was arched up high,
And the claws upon his shaggy paws
Were dreadful to espy.
He’d shake his mighty tail,
He’d leap, he’d scratch and puff,
Sometimes down in the valley,
Sometimes up on the bluff.
Hungry, wild and grim he roamed
Through bitter winter snow,
Gave everyone the shivers
Wherever he might go.
If you heard a dismal yowl outside
Your luck had just run out;
It was men not mice he hunted —
Of that there was no doubt.
He preyed upon the poor folk
Who got no gifts for Yule,
Who struggled to keep going,
Whose life was hard and cruel.
He took all of their Yuletide food
From the table and the shelf,
He left them not a morsel,
He ate it all himself.
And so the women laboured
With spindle, reel and rock,
To make a little coloured patch
Or just a single sock.
Because he couldn’t come inside
To catch the little ones,
If you had given clothes
To your daughters and your sons.
And when the candles were kindled,
When Yule Night was come,
The children clutched their presents
As the cat outside looked on.
Some might get an apron,
Some shoes or other stuff,
As long as they’d got something,
That would be enough.
Because Kitty couldn’t eat them
If they had new clothes to put on;
He’d hiss and howl horribly,
And then he would be gone.
Whether he’s about still
I really couldn’t tell,
But if everyone gets gifts for Yule,
Then all may yet be well.
Perhaps you will remember
To help with gifts yourself;
Perhaps there still are children
Who would get nothing else.
Maybe if you can help those
Who need a little cheer,
It will bring you a Good Yule
And a Happy New Year!
Translated by Thor Ewing from the poem Jólakötturinn by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (1899-1972)
Translation Copyright © Thor Ewing 2015
Christmas Eve & Twelth NIght
Christmas itself starts at 6pm on Christmas Eve with the traditional celebratory meal of the season and then presents are exchanged (hopefully with at least one item of clothing to keep Jólakötturinn away) and the Yule Lads start to disappear back to the mountains one by one until Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night (6 January) in Iceland is known as Þrettándinn, actually 13th Night as Christmas begins on Christmas Eve and is the day dedicated to those creatures of myth, legend and folklore. This is the day that all decorations must be taken down and the house tidied. It is also traditional to keep every corner of the house well lit in case the elves pay a visit on the way to their new homes.
On this day, the lines between the worlds are blurred and according to Icelandic folktales, all sorts of supernatural events occur; cows can talk, seals shed their skin and become human, the night dew has healing powers, and your dreams can really prophecy the future.
Meetings at Crossroads
More importantly this is the night where you have the most chance to meet one of the elves. It is believed that if you sit at a crossroads where you can see four churches on this night (an achievement in itself), then you may meet an elf who will try and lure you into their world with treasures. If you accept the treasures before dawn however, the elves will drive you mad (see above, elves are bad). However if you have the discipline and strength of mind not to speak to them then you get to keep the riches.
For most people though, this night is celebrated with a big dinner and attendance at bonfire parties with fireworks. People may sing elven songs and often Elf Kings and Queens make a gracious appearance but they are much more courteous than those you might find at cross roads, strangely bigger too.
There is so much fascinating Icelandic folklore. I recommend hunting down some good books on the subject and losing yourself to it. You will find out so much more that I’ve only briefly touched on.
Christmas Book Flood
Incidentally that brings to mind the Christmas Book Flood where nearly every Icelander gets at least one new book for Christmas, traditionally enjoying reading them on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day. I was so interested in this apparent widespread love for books that I read a bit more into it and its possible that this love dates back centuries. The people of Iceland have suffered many great hardships and privations and Eric Linklater’s is of the opinion that this is how the Icelandic developed their love of books:
‘But books, and devotion to books, remained for their comfort, and a widespread habit of writing verses demonstrated their continuing faith in the magic of words. Their inheritance survived disaster and was perpetuated. Neither in mood nor manner did the new writing seek to copy old masterpieces, but as they had been designed for the court of a Norwegian king or Orkney earl, so were the later verses cut and flavoured for a humbler audience, more democratic ears. At no time in Iceland was there a separate or professional literary class. Even Snorri Sturluson, whose genius sets him above any other known writer, was primarily the head of a powerful family, and got himself killed in a domestic struggle for power. In saga times an aptitude for verse and skill in arms so often went together that almost they seemed complementary talents’
The author and translator of The Northmen Talk, A choice of Tales from Iceland, Jacqueline Simpson went as far as to say – ‘the literary culture of medieval Iceland was outstanding in its richness, variety, and quality; comprised of several major types of poetry and a remarkable range of prose works—biographies and histories, realistic fiction, folk-tales and myths rendered with sophisticated skill, humorous, fantastic, or dramatic tales. It is indeed a literature whose characteristic flavour is in many ways more readily acceptable to modem taste than that of much medieval writing; it is drily ironic, objective, unemotional; its narrative is plain and swift, its dialogue usually terse and always purposeful, and it consistently aims at achieving dramatic power by the utmost economy of means’
If you’re still here would you like to know a little about traditional Icelandic Christmas foods? I think we’ll start with that fermented Skate to get it out of the way. Its traditionally eaten on 23 December also known as ‘Þorláksmessa.’ On this day the shops stay open later and it is a tradition to eat fermented skate which is definitely an acquired taste but is very good for the sinuses.
Two other pre and during Christmas foods are ‘laufabrauð’ – or ‘leaf bread and pepper cakes.
Laufabrauð is a thinly rolled bread into which beautiful patterns are cut. The dough is then deep fried and eaten with butter. Pepper cakes are spiced gingerbread biscuits. The english name is a direct translation and they don’t usually contain actual pepper. The name comes from the same route as gingerbreads in North Yorkshire. There are a big selection of other Christmas biscuits too, homemakers used to be judged on how many different ones they could make. Examples include buttery vanilla wreaths, light and crunchy cocoa cookies called loftkökur (air cakes)
The Big Dinner
Christmas Eve is the big multi course traditional meal of the season, eaten at 6pm usually only with family. The traditional meal is ‘Hangikjöt’ or ‘Hung Meat’. It’s a smoked lamb that’s apparently quite salty and has a very strong flavor. It can be served hot or cold and is usually accompanied with the laufabrauð, a white potato sauce called ‘uppstúfur,’ peas, red cabbage
I’ve been informed though that most people now don’t actually don’t serve hangikjöt or smoked lamb until Christmas day now but it’s the most traditional Icelandic Christmas food. Do you remember Meat Hook the yule lad who’s dedicated his life to stealing it. To make the perfect hangikjöt, you barely cover it with cold water in a pot and heat it at a low temperature until the water boils. Then you turn off the heat but leave it in the pot with the lid on for a while. You can see how handy a hook could be to steal this whilst its left unattended.
Game (reindeer or Ptarmigan) or Pork roasts (Hamborgarhryggur) are now very popular on Christmas Eve, sometimes with caramelised potatoes. The most popular pudding is still rice pudding with almonds which originates in Denmark.
I think we’ve really run out of time now but I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for trying some of these different yet delicious sounding dishes. Or at the very least whetted your appetite for the folklore and folktales of this fascinating country.
I haven’t got a recipe of my own for any of these for obvious reasons so I think I’ll just recommend a couple of really good cookbooks instead that maybe you could request as gifts. I still feel a little safer travelling through food and folklore than on an actual plane at the moment so maybe if you’re feeling the same these might alleviate some stay at home blues.
The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nielsen has more than 700 authentic recipes which Magnus collected while travelling extensively throughout the Nordic countries – Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – enhanced by atmospheric photographs of its landscapes and people. It’s just gorgeous and will transport you to those countries.
North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland is also wonderful. It will really make you feel like you are there even if some of the ingredients are a little tricky to get hold of. The reading itself though will make you travel so don’t worry too much about that.
The Northmen Talk, A choice of Tales from Iceland – Translated and with introduction by Jacqueline Simpson
Icelandic Folk Legends: Tales of apparitions, outlaws and things unseen – Alda Sigmundsdottir
The Little Book of the Hidden People: Twenty stories of elves from Icelandic folklore – Alda Sigmundsdottir
The Sagas of the Icelanders – Jane Smiley
Nordic Tales: Folktales from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark – Ulla Thynell
The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nielsen
North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland