In ICELAND thirteen leprechaun-like creatures known as the Jola-Sveinar, or Christmas Lads, visit homes during the CHRISTMAS SEASON. An old Icelandic legend tells us that they are the sons of a giant female troll named Gryla. The first lad arrives on the thirteenth day before Christmas. Another comes on the following day. This continues until the household hosts all thirteen boys on Christmas Eve. One boy departs on Christmas day and another on the following day, until the last withdraws on the twelfth day after Christmas, or Epiphany. In some older versions of this folklore, there are only nine Christmas Lads.
The early tales of the Christmas Lads painted them as fearsome creatures. Their mother, Gryla, was reputed to eat misbehaving children; her offspring inherited the same appetite for troublemakers. Adults used to remind children that the Christmas Lads waited for them in the winter time darkness in order to frighten the youngsters into good behavior. This custom inspired so much trauma that in 1746 the government denounced it.
Both the character and the appearance of the Christmas Lads changed over the years. The first record of the Lads dates back to the seventeenth century, when a man named Stephan Olafsson wrote a poem about the ogre Gryla, her husband Leppaludi, and her sons, the malicious YULE Boys. At this time Icelanders pictured the Lads as gigantic, lumbering trolls. By the nineteenth century, however, they looked more like peasant farmers. Instead of eating children, these oafish Lads vexed householders during their visits. They stole sausages, candles, and the family’s best grain. One might leave a room neat and clean only to find it askew upon returning. After Christmas they attempted to steal away with the household’s naughty children. In the twentieth century they shrank even further in size and began to resemble miniature Santas. Like SANTA CLAUS, they now leave GIFTS of candy for good children, who leave their SHOES on the win-dowsills in the days before Christmas to receive this reward.
The names and numbers of Christmas Lads varied over the years. Earlier records account for only nine Lads. In 1864, however, a writer named Jon Arnason named and described thirteen Christmas Lads. He called them Candle-Beggar (or Candle-Scrounger), Gully-Gawk, Hem-Blower, Shorty (also known as Stump), Meat Hook, Spoon-Licker (or Ladle-Licker), Sheep-Cot Clod (also known as Fence-post), Skyr-Gobbler (Skyr is a kind of Icelandic yogurt), Pot-Scraper (or Pot-Licker), Sausage-Swiper, Bowl-Licker, Window-Peeper, and Door-Sniffer (or Keyhole Sniffer). The fact that there were thirteen of them meant that the first would arrive on the eve of ST. LUCY’S DAY, December 13, and last would come on Christmas Eve. It also meant that the house would host these elf-like creatures throughout the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, since the last Lad would depart on Epiphany. The names given these creatures by Arnason describe their favorite activities and gives an idea of the kind of mischief that nineteenth-century Icelanders attributed to them. Arnason’s flight of imagination took root with the Icelandic people, who today generally recognize the same thirteen Christmas Lads.