Imagine growing up dreading deep in your soul that you’d be eaten alive on Christmas Eve by an animal bigger than a house if you didn’t arm yourself with … new clothes.
That sounds somewhat arbitrary and absurdly excessive, no? Even more bizarre is this: That animal, a bloodthirsty critter named Jólakötturinn (“Yule Cat” in English), was an oversized housecat! And this was real lore, really believed by children in medieval Iceland.
But how can that be? And how did kids finally figure out that the Yule Cat wasn’t salivating over their old-clothes-donning bodies? And what happened to the Yule Cat over the centuries, given that he’s now a celebrated icon in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik? Read on!
The Necessity of Extreme Scare Tactics
Until the early 2000s, all clothing in Iceland came directly from sheep’s wool that had to be meticulously processed before the harsh Nordic winter set in. Clothing stores didn’t even open until around 1870, according to ethnologist Árni Björnsson, so small villages were in a race against time to make clothing. Everyone had to do their part, and there was no room for delay. As the Society of Ethnologists in Iceland explains:
In the subsistence farming society, it was all about people working together towards a common goal, and in order to enjoy the Christmas season, all work had to be completed on time, whether it was knitting and working clothes, cleaning, baking, brewing or preparing the Christmas dinner. It was to the benefit of the householders and householders that all the preparations for Christmas went well, and if some were lazy and delayed the work, it was natural that some measures had to be taken.
New clothes were gifted only to those who had earned them by completing their work on time. So, anyone who didn’t receive new clothes for Christmas – even so much as a pair of socks – bore a mark of shame. This punitive incentive structure was prevalent throughout Europe when it came to making clothes before winter, so that wasn’t remarkable; what was remarkable was Iceland’s escalation to mythical capital punishment for minors: death by mega-cat.
Maybe Iceland needed a graver threat because wool was also the country’s primary export, critical to its economy and survival. If people were freezing throughout winter and had nothing to sell when winter ended, the community would suffer infinitely more. And children were vital to the community’s farming workforce, so strength in numbers was indispensable. Some children weren’t deterred by the mere prospect of having no new clothes and a bad reputation, so they needed something more compelling – and it worked. In fact, this tactic proved so effective that the Yule Cat threat was actually banned by the government in 1746.
The Choice of a Cat as the Beast of Terror
Cats were the traveling companion of choice for Vikings – although not for sentimental reasons, but rather to kill mice and be skinned for their fur. Consequently, feline populations grew throughout the Nordic countries when the Vikings settled there. To this day, Reykjavik is “culturally a cat city,” according to Reykjavik Excursions. As of August 2022, there was a cat-to-human ratio of 1-to-10 and bureaucratic obstacles to keeping a dog within the city limits.
Beyond having an inbred fascination with cats though, Icelanders thinking up the Yule Cat story were influenced by the foreign animals that appeared in neighboring countries during Advent. Most prominent is the Nordic Yule Goat, a pagan or even prehistoric belief that influenced the emergence of Iceland’s Yule Cat. Most Icelanders had never even seen a goat at that time, so they mistook the Norwegian word for “goat” as “cat,” a critter familiar to them. Research conducted in Icelandic by the author (with the aid of Google Translate) revealed that many historians – both natives and non-Icelanders – agree on the beast’s ancient origins:
- National Museum of Iceland.
- Society of Ethnologists in Iceland.
- Iceland Magazine.
- The Farmer’s Newspaper.
- The Medieval Magazine.
- Folklore Thursday.
Their volumes of research into the Yule Cat’s pagan origins disprove the commonly maintained belief that the Yule Cat was nonexistent until the 19th century. This is the theory perpetuated in publications by the Smithsonian, Reykjavik Grapevine and Mental Floss, for example. Despite the claims made by the latter, both the Yule Goat and the Yule Cat monitor people while they prepare for Christmas, and both penalize those who don’t receive new clothes.
Interestingly, some scholars have suggested that the Yule Goat and Yule Cat are actually twin siblings fathered by Krampus, Santa’s demonic helper in Alpine lore. Archaeologist Guðmundur Ólafsson summarizes his findings regarding Yule Cat folklore and the Krampus theory:
[Krampus] split and gave birth to different derivative forms of Christmas lights … the goat in Scandinavia and the cat in Iceland. Then you can wonder why this Christmas spirit of ours appears in the form of a cat. [It is due to] the folk belief that has been known in Europe for centuries about the devil’s ability to change moods, which can appear in the form of a cat.
An article in Morgunbladid adds to Ólafsson’s conclusion, noting that Iceland-Germany trading would have exposed Icelanders to Germany’s Krampus lore.
The Environment That Stirred Icelanders’ Imagination
With days that have only four hours of sunlight, December is the darkest time of year in Iceland. Yule Cat expert Brian Pilkington, when writing about the creation of the karmic kitty’s owners, observes: “Icelandic winters are long and dark, … Imagination tends to fill the darkness with what we fear.” Consequently, the Yule Cat’s lore is quite intricate. He’s the house pet of giant mountain-cave-dwelling ogres who wreak havoc in Iceland all throughout December. In fact, he helps them by sniffing out the victims and stealing into buildings to snatch vulnerable sleeping children without waking anyone to rescue them.
The Yule Cat’s host family consists of the mother and father, Grýla and Leppalúði (respectively), and their 13 sons, the Yule Lads. Each Yule Lad has an assigned prank and acts independently, but the Yule Cat sticks close to Grýla – and the two are quite a devious pair, as one story by the Icelandic National League of the United States illustrates. They are all said to reside in the caves of Dimmuborgir (“Dark Castles” in English). According to Scandinavia Travel Guide, Icelanders believed that the volcanic lava fields in Dimmuborgir were “the place where earth meets hell.” Naturally, “hell” is open to tourists year-round, and those gracing the family’s presence in December might even get to see special events featuring the mischievous characters.
The social environment compounded the influence of the physical environment. When examining the status of the Yule Cat and the ogre family in the 1600s, Björnsson notes:
Folklore often mirrors what’s happening in society. So, it makes sense that Grýla and the yuletide lads are grimmer during this difficult time for Icelanders. In 1602, the Danes banned Iceland from trading with countries other than Denmark, and this was tough because Iceland relied on many imported goods. To make matters worse, the colder period in Iceland also sets in around 1600. The period is referred to as “Iceland’s humiliation,” … So, those things we call “jólavættir,” or supernatural beings of Christmas—including the yuletide lads, their ogress mother Grýla, and the Christmas cat—those elements were probably incorporated into the Christmas tradition to keep kids in line. Everyone was supposed to work hard to do all the things that had to be done before Christmas, and some people were lazy, you see. So it was said that if you weren’t diligent at working, the Christmas cat would come for you.
The Benevolent Side of the Yule Cat’s Menace
Over the decades, interpretations of the cat’s bad intentions were softened to have the cat eating not the child but the child’s Christmas dinner. (There were those who resisted that downgrade though, allowing the cat to eat the dinner before eating the child.) Another interpretation recast the perspective to have not children but farmhands on the hook for processing wool on time. The objective here was only indirectly to escape death by cat; really, it was to make the farmhands heroes for enabling people to make clothes before the Yuletide deadline. Alternatively, it made them work hard all year so that they themselves could afford new clothes at Christmastime.
The feline’s greatest redemption, however, was achieved when he was appointed chief philanthropist. Over time, the threat of his visit became a goodhearted reason for the affluent to provide for the impoverished. Those who didn’t have to worry about being eaten by the Yule Cat would buy new clothes for those who had worked hard but still couldn’t afford them. This kept the vicious vigilante from discriminating against the destitute. The idea was promoted in the very poem by Kötlum that put the Yule Cat back in Icelandic households in the early 1930s.
The Yule Cat’s Completed Metamorphosis
Having overcome centuries of striking fear into the hearts and minds of children, the Yule Cat eventually succeeded at overhauling his image. In modern Iceland, the Yule Cat tradition is viewed through a notably positive lens. He’s a beloved centerpiece in Reykjavik, where the city hosts special events in his and his ogre family’s honor. At worst, he’s sold out by agreeing to be the spokes-feline in clothing ads at Christmastime. But his image is evoked more frequently to promote giving to the poor and homeless through clothing drives.
As real-world evidence of the transformation, consider a December 2020 blog post in which an Icelander explains the tradition to fellow Icelanders. The writer’s observations encapsulate the consensus discoverable online even 10 pages deep into Icelandic (“.is” domain) search results on Google. For example:
While the Jólakötturinn story may seem harsh it is in line with other Christmas traditions that exist throughout Europe, such as the tale of Krampus who would steal naughty children away, and the United States, wherein Santa Clause would gift coal to naughty children. Ultimately, these tales reinforce the cultural ideals that dominate the Christmas season: good will and charity, as well as those more cultural specific, such as work ethic among Scandinavian groups. … All in all, the purpose of this myth was actually to encourage obedience among children and a distribution of wealth within communities.
Comments on that post hit the point home even more clearly. The readers quoted below (who remained anonymous when commenting) had been raised to understand the importance of new clothes at Christmastime, but had little to no knowledge of why that was.
“When I was younger I feel like I received pajamas and socks every year. I don’t necessarily think my parents had any background knowledge on this but I do find it very interesting. I was never too happy opening up those gifts but I think I might carry this on to my future children to encourage obedience and gratefulness”
“I had never heard of the Yule Cat. It makes sense now why we receive clothes before or on Christmas, so that we do not get eaten.”
Plenty of other sources, from Icelandic newspapers (e.g., “Reykjavik Grapevine”) to cultural institutions (e.g., the National Museum of Iceland), call attention to the fact that few readers know the origin story of the clothes tradition they happily perpetuate. Today, the once-bloodthirsty Yule Cat now gently appeals to adults and children alike to embrace the holiday spirit of giving. The message now isn’t one of retribution, but rather one suggesting that everyone in the community deserves to be taken care of throughout winter with something so basic as protection against the elements. In other words, what was once tangential to the Yule Cat lore is now central to it.
Another wonderful example comes from a University of Southern California Digital Folklore Archives interview with a 23-year-old Icelander who was asked to explain the Yule Cat story:
I think this tradition is meant to make people also generous, because sometimes on the last day of school before winter break the teacher will give the children chores to do in the classroom, like tidying up the presses and cleaning the tables, and then the teacher hands out socks usually to the children, and you can give them to someone who did a really good job. In the end, everyone ends up with a pair of socks. It’s good for people who don’t have as much money, to keep the tradition alive without the parents having to spend a lot of money. I also think it’s nice thing to do with your friends, and makes everyone work a bit harder. … It speaks to the heavy emphasis on generosity and community within the culture.
One final example is the 1987 song by Björk about the Yule Cat, embedded below with English translations of the Icelandic lyrics. Bjork’s song borrows from Johannes’ 1932 poem, but embellishes on its philanthropic side with additional lyrics composed by Ingibjörg Þorbergs. There are other songs as well, and there’s even a short directed by Justine East that Danny Elfman scored, “Yule Cat: Jólakötturinn” (2017). All of these attest to the altruistic nature in Icelandic culture – one that’s amplified each year at Christmastime.
“Jólakötturinn” (1987) performed by Björk
Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.
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