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.
The Yule Lads Were Physically TerrifyingPhoto: Shorts & Facts / YouTube
In addition to being menacing, the Yule Lads were described as physically terrifying. They were always portrayed as ugly and hag-like in drawings. Some had unique physical characteristics that allowed them to commit mischief. One had an abnormally large nose used to sniff out food. Another was incredibly thin so he's able to slip through cracks and crevices in homes to steal food.
There Are Elf Researchers Who Study Yule LadsPhoto: Top10Archive / YouTube
Yule Lads, while no longer as frightening as they once were, remain part of Iceland’s culture. In fact, there is an elf school in Iceland where scholars can study the history and and mythology of the Yule Lads and other elfin creatures. Some people in Iceland legitimately believe in the freakish Lads and in other elves from hidden worlds.
People have come forward claiming to have interacted with elfin beings and, according to Iceland’s elf school, roughly 54% of Icelanders believe in elves.
There Used To Be 82 Yule Lads Until A Poem Narrowed It DownPhoto: Cox n' Crendor / YouTube
Before the tales of the Yule Lads were written down, they were shared via word-of-mouth. Stories varied greatly and there was a time when there were 82 different Yule Lads. In 1932, the poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum wrote a poem describing only 13 of them. With time, the poem became so popular that 13 became the generally accepted number. The poem is still recited around Christmastime in some Icelandic schools.
Santa Clause's Popularity Forced The Yule Lads To Become More LovablePhoto: Thomas Nast / WikiMedia Commons
In modern Iceland, it’s laughable to think that the Yule Lads could ever be worthy of outright banning. Children now leave shoes out for the Yule Lads. Good children receive toys and candy from them while bad children receive a raw potato. Somehow, the Yule Lads went from demonic child-eating monsters to entities that, at their absolute worst, put a root vegetable in your shoe.
How did the transformation happen? At the beginning of the 20th century, Santa Clause became more prevalent worldwide. As the more benevolent figure became popular in Iceland, the Yule Lads morphed to became a little less frightening. They were mischievous and their antics were toned down to make for a lighter and cheerier holiday narrative.