By Terry Gunnell
Northern Studies, Vol.38 (2004)
Introduction: To my mind, one of the most interesting aspects in the field of folk legends is the way in which migratory legends adapt to their surroundings. The aim of the following article is to present a case study into the background of one such legend and one of the most common motifs in earlier Icelandic legends, namely an investigation into those accounts dealing with the man or woman who had to stay ‘home alone’ on Christmas night (or sometimes that night of New Year’s Eve) when a group of ‘hidden people’ or elves broke into the farm to hold their annual Christmas celebrations, involving dance, the consumption of alcohol and other forms of lively entertainment.
The motif seems to have ancient roots connected to the ancient beliefs of the first Icelandic settlers that the island was already populated by various forms of spirits, both positive and negative, which unofficially ‘permitted’ people to take up residence on their territory. It seems also that from the start people believed that once a year, at midwinter and sometimes around midsummer, these spirits would reassert their power over their territory by demanding offerings and/or literally moving in with their tenants for a few days, just as the old Norwegian kings used to do in the Viking period.
Closely related to this is another one about how the dead commonly revisit their old dwelling places at these turning points in time. The modern-day Icelandic belief about visiting ‘Christmas Lads’ (jolasvemar, the Icelandic form of Santa Claus) stems from the same roots. But what exactly is the root of the legends concerning the Christmas visits?