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The Yule Cat of Iceland: A Different Kind of Christmas Tradition

By Minjie Su

You know the Christmas Cat,
– That cat was enormous.
People know not where he came from
Nor to what place he went.

It’s that time of the year again, and high time to talk about cats. Cats and Christmas seem like a couple perpetually entangled in a love-hate relationship. On one hand, there is almost nothing more adorable than have a cat lie cozily either on your lap, or next to the hearth, with a brightly lit Christmas tree standing by. On the other hand, cats simple cannot stay cool and aloof when a tree suddenly appears in the house; they destroy everything and turn the holiday season into absolute hell.

In terms of destructive powers, one cat perhaps tops all his feline kin. This is none other than Jólakötturinn – the Christmas Cat – of Iceland. According to legends, the Christmas or Yule Cat is a monstrously huge black cat that only appears at Christmas Eve, when little children are sound asleep, dreaming of the glitter of the Christmas Tree and what marvellous gifts lie under it. Unfortunately, if there are no colourful new clothes among these gifts, the innocent little ones, instead of feasting on the Christmas banquet next day, will become feasted on by the Yule Cat.

No one is quite sure where the Yule Cat belief comes from, but what has made the Cat universally famous is perhaps the poem by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (1899–1972), the beginning of which was cited at the start of this post. It is, however, quite possible that the Cat is trollish in nature. In Scandinavian folklore, witches and wizards often conjure up a creature called ‘troll cat’ – using various disgusting ingredients such as dead men’s nails and bones – to do their bidding. Shamans may also take up a feline body. Knut Strompdal (1881–1954) once recorded a story, collected from Vefsn and Sømma in Norway, that a Finn takes the form of a huge black cat to inquire after the family of Johan Benedikson, a hire-hand in Lofoten. As a token, the black cat stole a silver spoon from his homestead.

The Nightmare, a succubus-ish mare, may also disguise herself as cat when invading people’s homes. The logic is probably that cats are common as domestic animals; they are also nimble and quiet enough to steal into buildings and chambers. The night-owl nature of cats is probably also a bonus.

As far as the Yule Cat is concerned, he is associated with a special group of supernatural beings. The central figure is Grýla, who may be understood as a dark, twisted version of Santa Claus. In post-medieval Icelandic folklore, Grýla is a terrifying ogress or troll-woman who mothered the thirteen Yule Lads. She comes from her mountainous abode each Christmas Eve, and, striding side by side with the Yule Cat, devours naughty children. The origin of Grýla is almost as obscure as the Yule Cat’s, but it is apparently rooted in the Middle Ages and even beyond. Sturlunga saga makes several mentions of the name, apparently referring to a specific figure than a species. In a þula (a sort of rhymed verse) attached to Snorri Sturluson’s (1179–1241) Skáldskaparmál (‘Language of Poetry’), Grýla is named alongside other troll-women. Although the word tröll is extremely vague and does not constitute a single species, there is consensus about certain troll characteristics. They are always hideous, inhumanly strong, lustful, and cannibalistic. It is almost a literary trope in sagas that heroes are tempted by troll wives and are constantly advised against either sleeping, or sharing food with them.

By the 17th century, the tradition of Grýla has become tied to that of the Yule Lads, a much milder version of Grýla, but still a lot more mischievous than Santa. The tradition goes back to ancient times and is believed to come from East Iceland. They were much nastier back then, perhaps sharing the same dark nature with their reputed mother and other trollish creatures, but nowadays,  they have become almost nice, especially when compared to Grýla and the Cat. For a start, they have stopped eating children. They still punish children if they are naughty, but the most severe thing they can come up with now, is putting rotten veggies into their socks. Good children are even rewarded with fitting gifts.

Nevertheless, the playfulness of the Yule Lads is not an excuse for us to drop our guard against the Yule Cat. Like old Grýla who stands in defiance of time and change, the Cat is nowhere near ‘nice’.

BEWARE!

‘If he faintly meowed outside
The misfortune was soon to happen.
Everyone knows, that he fed on men,
But mice he would not eat.’

‘Ef mjálmað var aumlega úti
var ólukkan samstundir vís
Allir vissu´, að hann veiddi menn en vildi ekki mýs.’

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Photo by Victor Bezrukov / Flickr

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