Given that it was a rough habitat to settle, it's unsurprising that Iceland's folklore isn't exactly warm and fuzzy. In fact, their first stories are almost as horrific as the Brothers Grimm fairytales. Even Icelandic children were not sheltered from the rougher aspects of life. During the Christmas season, for example, the youngest children were told creepy tales of the Yule Lads.
Accompanied by their mother Gryla and the demonic Yule Cat, the Yule Lads prowled during the Christmas season. Children unlucky enough to be kidnapped by them were cooked alive and eaten.
The Yule Lads had many iterations over the years and were eventually immortalized in a poem that's still memorized in Icelandic schools. However, the original story of these scary Christmas creatures was so terrible that it was eventually banned altogether.
After hearing the tale of these morbid elfin lads, any childhood fears you had of Santa Clause will seem pretty silly.
According to legend, the Yule Lads would visit children at night in the 13 days leading up to Christmas. The purpose of these visits was always malevolent. There were 13 individual Yule Lads with unique names and personalities. Each one performed a wicked task related to their specific persona and they often stole food and resources that were important to survival.
Stekkjarstaur, Giljaguar, and Stufur were all said to steal milk and farm animals. Askasleikir allegedly licked up leftover food from pots, Bjúgnakrækir took sausages, and Ketkrókur held a hook he used to steal meat. Hurðaskellir would come and slam doors at night, for the sole purpose of scaring sleeping children. Kertasníkir supposedly followed children to steal their candles and lanterns, leaving them alone in the dark.
The Yule Lads were said to be parented by two monsters named Grýla and Leppalúði. While both monsters were unpleasant, the mother figure Grýla was particularly menacing. Dating back to Pagan times, the legendary Grýla was a troll with hooves for feet and thirteen tails. She lived in the mountains and would periodically come down into towns to hunt for bad children.
Supposedly, bad things happened to the children unlucky enough to encounter Grýla. They were placed in a sack and dragged back to a hillside dwelling. The kiddos were then boiled alive and eaten in a stew.
This is a considerably more morbid punishment than getting coal in your stocking from Santa and his elves.
As if the stories of the ogre parents weren't terrifying enough, Grýla and Leppalúði also had a pet cat that’s even scarier than the Yule Lads. The cat didn't discriminate between good and bad children. Regardless of behavior, the cat would stalk and eat whomever because it could only feed on people.
Children who received a new item of clothing were said to be immune from the Yule Cat, so perhaps it was created to make children grateful for receiving sweaters as gifts.
What exactly were the Yule Lads and where did they come from? Origin stories vary. Some stories said that the freakish creatures were from another dimension that existed side-by-side with our own. They were essentially invisible until the holidays. Other stories claimed that the boys were children of Eve that she hid from God. The Lads were banished to another world after God discovered them. Some other sources reported that the Yule Lads were fallen angels.
Whatever the origin story, the Yule Lads were certainly never described as benevolent entities.