Christmas: a time for bright lights, warm hearths, presents, family, delicious food, and… abject terror? Perhaps not around most of the world, but Iceland is not like most of the world. Then again, most of the world does not have Grýla.
While in much of the west, we celebrate a Santa Claus that is fat and jolly, clad in red and white, with a sleigh led by flying reindeer, Icelanders do not succumb to such fantasy. Since the 17th Century, their Yuletide has been plagued by the knowledge that in the mountains, a far fouler person awaits the coming of the season.
See also: Christmas in Iceland
Grýla is a giantess, perhaps more evil than any figure in Icelandic folklore. Throughout the year, she collects whispers about children around the island misbehaving, and when Christmas time comes, she sets out to gather them.
Her appetite for the flesh of naughty youths is insatiable, and each year, she finds no shortage of her favourite crop. Collecting them up, she cooks them in a pot and turns them into a giant stew that will sustain her until the next winter.
Grýla would be terrible enough if she worked alone, but such a thought, sadly, is beyond the realms of hopeful. In her cave in Dimmuborgir, in north Iceland, she lives with a large black feline called the Yule Cat, which also has an appetite for human flesh. Also inhabiting the cave is her third husband, a troll called Leppalúði, and her thirteen sons.
Want to go look for Grýla? Then check out these North Iceland Tours
The Yule Cat does not just enjoy the flesh of those who have misbehaved; it happily preys on any child that did not get clothes for Christmas. Some say that this legend was created to ensure that everyone finished their weaving, knitting and sewing by the dead of winter. Although most of today’s clothes are store-bought, it is still considered bad luck to not give your kids clothes, just in case.
See also: Be Afraid | The Yule Cat is in Reykjavík
Leppalúði is the least threatening of the bunch, brow-beaten to the extent the best word to describe him is pathetic. Perhaps out of fear of what happened to Grýla’s previous husbands, he exerts no influence over his wife’s evil tendencies. Each year, he watches silently as she brings in a new crop of the poor, naive kids who did not heed the warnings about her.
Grýla’s sons bring their own darkness to Christmas. From the 12th to the 25th, they descend from Dimmuborgir one by one, to engage in thirteen days of mischief across the country. Each has his own unique way of pranking, and from now until Christmas, we will be letting you know what kind of trouble they are bringing to this poor island nation.
If you live outside of Iceland, enjoy your eggnog, keep warm by the fire, and more than anything, appreciate those you love. If you were here, then Grýla and her motley crew of a family would give no guarantee that you’d see them come the New Year.