If you're not from Iceland, and you don't have an unhealthy obsession with the country like I do, you may not have heard about the Yule Lads - Iceland's version of Santa.
Who are the Yule Lads?
The Yule Lads are pretty similar to Santa Claus at first glance. There's 13 of them, and they each have a designated day in December where they come down from their lair and visit human homes. Children leave their shoe in the window, and if they've been good they get a gift. If they've been naughty they get a potato. So far it's pretty harmless. But, like the rest of Icelandic folklore, the original story of the Yule Lads is actually pretty grim.
What are they and where did they come from?
This is where it gets creepy. The Yule Lads are considered to be like the hidden people - creatures in Nordic folklore that live in another realm which is very close to our own. Fairies, trolls and other spirits, all considered to be both magical and dangerous. Every now and then they leave their own realm and enter ours. In Norwegian folklore they are referred to as "de underjordiske" - the ones who live underground.
One story goes that the hidden people were once the children of Adam and Eve. One day, God was coming to visit them, but poor Eve didn't have time to clean all her children. She hid the dirty ones from God, and when he arrived he said they would be hidden forever and so they became the hidden people.
These creatures are not to be messed with, and in Iceland they are treated with utmost respect. It is estimated that around 54% of the population believe in the existence of elves, and people will do their best not to disturb them. They live in hills and rocks, and Icelanders go to great lengths to keep these hills and rocks safe. If they want to build a road, but there is an elf hill in the way, they will build around it. Can you imagine being constantly aware that something else, something not human, is living just beyond your reach?
Okay, so the Yule Lads are not human. But what else makes them scary?
Apart from these creepy illustrations of them, the backstory of the Yule Lads and their gruesome family members is what ultimately makes them terrifying. They weren't always nice gift-givers.
Originally they were outlaws, the children of two trolls living in a mountain, wreaking havoc on innocent humans. They performed pranks, scared children and stole things. Their mother Grýla often came down from the mountains to eat naughty children and it is said that her appetite was insatiable.
As if their child-eating mother wasn't bad enough, the Yule Lads also have a delightful pet. The Jólakötturinn, or the Yule Cat, was a monstrously large cat, vicious and cruel. He lurks around town during Christmas, and if you don't receive an item of clothing as a gift he will eat you.
After Christianity was introduced in Iceland, the story of the Yule Lads became much less grim. While they still maintained their image as pranksters, they became gift-givers rather than thieves, and today the children of Iceland leave out their shoe in a window every December, hoping they have been good so that they don't receive a potato.
And while people still believe in elves, they no longer believe in the Yule Lads. Children grow up and realize they are just a myth, and much like Santa the ones who have been giving them gifts all these years are their parents.
But who knows? Perhaps they are still out there somewhere, in another realm just beyond our reach.