Visitors to Iceland this December may be confused by the large, brightly-lit cat that has recently been erected beside the Christmas tree at Lækjartorg square in downtown Reykjavík. Why, for instance, does it have glowing red eyes? Why does it look so ready to pounce? Why is it baring its fangs and claws?
See Also: Folklore in Iceland
Because this is Jólakötturinn, otherwise known as the Yule Cat, an enormous, murderous and malevolent moggy that shares as much a taste for children as it does poorly-dressed farm workers. Perhaps some further explanation is needed.
For kids, Icelandic Christmas traditions can be a little disturbing. The major reason for this is that they are interlaced with the lurking fear of being either harassed or killed by vicious monsters, a fate that only affects those foolish enough to have spent the year misbehaving.
Take Grýla, the boorish troll woman who takes pleasure in punishing naughty children, dragging them away to the dark and cragged fields of Dimmuborgir, never to be seen again. Grýla is the Icelandic version of the ‘Boogeyman’; a bargaining tool used by adults to scare children towards good behaviour. This image is somewhat more terrifying than the chunks of coal left in a child’s stockings by Santa Clause, a character who lacks the menace so closely associated with Iceland’s most popular festive characters.
Grýla’s own offspring are the thirteen Yule Lads, arguably the most cherished of this devilish cast. In the 13-days leading up to Christmas Eve, young children will leave their shoe in their window overnight; if they have been well-behaved that day, they will be rewarded with a sweet treat or gift, however, if they have misbehaved, they will wake up with great disappointment to a potato, as well as a hard learnt lesson.
As well as her mischievous children, Grýla is also said to own a cat… the Yule Cat, to be precise, a terrifying character for those growing up believing in it.
According to Icelandic folklore, the giant Yule Cat is said to roam the countryside throughout the Christmas period, attacking and gobbling down those who are not appropriately adorned in fresh clothing.
This peculiar prerequisite can be traced to the 19th Century where it is thought that farmers told the story of the Yule Cat to their workers in order to motivate them to finish the autumn’s wool processing. Those who worked hard would be rewarded with new garments by their master, while those who didn’t would not. In other words, lazy workers were liable to become Jólakötturinn’s prey, while those with their mind on the task escaped such a fate.
See Also: Christmas in Iceland
This story would soon be adopted by parents, who warned their children that if chores were not complete, they would be getting a visit from the Yule Cat. Towering high above their homes, the monster would peer in through the children’s windows to check what gifts their parents had bestowed upon them; if clothing was not among them, the Yule Cat would punish them for their laziness.
The current image of the Yule Cat was popularised by the beloved Icelandic poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum, and is performed by the artist, Björk, in the above video. Make sure to give this menacing sculpture a look next time you’re taking a stroll downtown.
Do you have any strange Christmas traditions in your country of origin? Did you see the Yule Cat in Reykjavík this Christmas? Make sure to leave your thoughts in the Facebook comments below!