Icelandic children get to enjoy the favors on not one but thirteen Santa Clauses. Their number has varied over time, but currently are considered to be thirteen. Called the Yule Lads, these merry but mischievous fellows take turns visiting kids on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. On each of those nights, children place one of their shoes on the windowsill. For good boys and girls, the Yule Lad will leave presents for them. For the not so well behaved, the Yule Lads are not subtle in expressing their disapproval: they fill the shoe with rotting potatoes.
The Yule Lads are descended from trolls. They were originally portrayed as being mischievous, or even criminal, pranksters who would steal from, or otherwise harass the population, at the time mostly rural farmers. During this century however, they have mellowed, and they nowadays wear their best, red, suits, traditionally worn by Santa Claus. But they still tend to pilfer and play tricks.
Dozens of different names for the Yule Lads appear in different folk tales and stories. A popular poem about the Yule Lads by the late Jóhannes úr Kötlum, which first appeared in the book Jólin koma (Christmas is Coming) in 1932, served to make their names and number much better known. The names of the 13 Yule Lads that most Icelanders know today are all derived from that poem. Each Yule Lad has his own personality and distinctive characteristics. The National Museum of Iceland describes each and every one as follows:
- Sheep-Cote Clod: He tries to suckle yews in farmer’s sheep sheds
- Gully Gawk: He steals foam from buckets of cow milk
- Stubby: He’s short and steals food from frying pans
- Spoon Licker: He licks spoons
- Pot Scraper, aka Pot Licker: He steals unwashed pots and licks them clean
- Bowl Licker: He steals bowls of food from under the bed (back in the old days, Icelanders used to sometimes store bowls of food there – convenient for midnight snacking?)
- Door Slammer: He stomps around and slams doors, keeping everyone awake
- Skyr Gobbler: He eats up all the Icelandic yogurt (skyr)
- Sausage Swiper: He loves stolen sausages
- Window Peeper: He likes to creep outside windows and sometimes steal the stuff he sees inside
- Door Sniffer: He has a huge nose and an insatiable appetite for stolen baked goods
- Meat Hook: He snatches up any meat left out, especially smoked lamb
- Candle Beggar: He steals candles, which used to be sought-after items in Iceland