In Iceland, 13 'Yule Lads' come to town to herald Christmas
MYVATN, Iceland -- The people of northern Iceland have had their travel plans disrupted with a record high snowfall this December. Roads have been shut, flights cancelled and school suspended.
But for the children of this isolated North Atlantic island nation, the main worry is how the waist-high snow might affect the Icelandic Santa, Stekkjastaur, who comes to town Wednesday.
Stekkjastaur, after all, has a stiff peg-leg.
He is one of 13 mischievous troll brothers, called the Yule Lads, who have entertained and also frightened Icelandic children for hundreds of years.
Instead of a friendly Santa Claus, children in Iceland enjoy favours from the brothers, who come down from their mountain cave 13 days before Christmas according to folklore.
The brothers are loud, reckless, and have names like Door-Slammer, Window-Peeper, Meat-Hook, Candle-Stealer -- reflecting their preferred method of pranks or criminal behaviour. But they claim to be mostly rehabilitated, and Sausage-Swiper is now keen to host barbecues.
Traditionally, they bathe once a year ahead of Christmas. Every year local actors in Myvatn, an inland community bordering Iceland's uninhabited interior, dress up in 19th-century costume and arrive as the Yule Lads to a natural lagoon heated with water from hot springs.
To children in the region, their arrival marks the countdown to December 24, when Icelanders celebrate Christmas.
"But, but, but -- I was told we were going fishing," mumbled actor Hulda Sigmundsdottir, who plays "Pot-Licker," as she dipped her woolen sock reluctantly into the bath.
In the spirit of today's global outsourcing economy, the Yule Lads have also taken on the responsibility of replying to letters addressed to Santa Claus, their foreign colleague.
Soffia Jonsdottir, who is Santa's de-facto secretary in Iceland, says the Icelandic Postal Service forwards all Santa mail to the tiny outpost at Myvatn.
"Santa is a distant cousin of the Yule Lads so of course we are happy to help out," she said. "We reply to every letter that has a return address."
The letters arrive throughout the year and often include a wish-list, personal gift or simply a warm greeting. The Yule Lads, who speak Icelandic, admit sometime struggling with foreign languages.
Fortunately the letters are not delivered to the Yule Lads' home, where they might be stolen by their evil mother, Gryla, said to be a 600-year-old woman who eats children.
This dysfunctional family even has an innocently named "Christmas Cat," a giant feline with the habit of eating children -- particularly those not wearing new clothes over the Christian holiday.
"You find a number of parents saying that we have to tone Gryla and her family down a bit," said Terry Gunnell, a professor in folklore at the University of Iceland. "But that would take away some the genuine Icelandic Christmas which is a dark time when days pass with only few hours of sunlight."
Gunnell said the Yule Lads had traditionally been used to discipline children when adults were busy preparing for the holiday.
"On the old Icelandic farms, stories of dark figures kept children from running into the mountains or falling into lakes or things like that," he said.
Parents used to torment children with such disturbing stories that in the 18th century, Danish king Christian VI tried to ban such un-holy tales.
For the next 13 days leading to Christmas, Icelandic children will enjoy favours from the Icelandic Santas as they come down from the mountains one by one, with presents -- or a rotten potato in the case of bad behaviour.
Five-year-old Anita Heidrunardottir, who was playing with her friends at the Managardur kindergarten in the capital Reykjavik, said she was hoping to wake up to books and mandarin oranges in her shoe in the run-up to Christmas.
"My sister is scared of the Yule Lads," she said. Why? "She does not know them. That's why she is scared."