Souvenir Story: The Yule Lads of Iceland
Meet Bjúgnakrækir. That’s Icelandic for “sausage swiper.”
And this is his mother’s cat, Jolakotturinn (The Yuletide Cat), who enjoys lounging in the sun, sleeping all day, and eating children. Yum.
Every December they emerge from their packaging to sit on my fireplace mantle. He and his cat are among my treasured souvenirs from Iceland.
Learning about how Christmas is celebrated around the world is fascinating. For example, I learned on my Unwrapping Christmas Tour during my Christmas-Themed Weekend in Toronto that the Japanese visit KFC due to the Colonels Santa-like appearance. Then there’s Krampus, that terrifying Christmas demon.
And there’s Christmas in Iceland, with the Yule Lads.
Which leads me back to dear sausage swiper, Bjúgnakrækir. He’s one of Iceland’s 13 Yule Lads; the ninth, to be exact.
The 13 Yule Lads are brothers. Their mother is an evil troll who lives in the mountains. Their lazy father spends most of his days bed ridden. This is strictly assumption, but perhaps the cause of these boys’ rebellion is the lack of a strong male figure in their lives.
Beginning December 12, the Yule Lads enter civilization one-by-one, day-by-day. Each stays for about 2 weeks, the last leaving on January 6. They have one mission: cause trouble related to each of their wayward specialities.
Forget Elf on the Shelf; the Yule Lads are the OGs of Christmas mischief.
If they had their own 30-second TV spots, they’d probably look similar to AllState’s Mayhem ads.
Bjúgnakrækir, “Sausage Swiper”, swipes the smoked sausages of unsuspecting families. There’s also Sheep-Cote Cod (harasses your sheep), Gully Gawk (steals milk), Stubby (eats burnt crusts on pans), Spoon Licker (steals spoons… and probably licks them too), Pot Scraper (eats the scraps from your pots), Bowl Licker (steals your bowls… and probably licks them too), Door Slammer (self explanatory), Skyr Gobbler (really can’t blame him though), Window Peeper (creeper?), Doorway Sniffer (strange), Meat Hook (steals meat), and Candle Stealer.
If you’re good, these Yule Lads will leave a present in your shoe while they’re misbehaving.
If you’re bad, you get a potato.
The Yule Lads are the Icelandic version of Santa.
Here’s how our feline friend joins the story.
Just like my cat likes to curl up on my freshly laundered and folded clothes and get his hair ALL OVER IT, this cat also has an affinity for apparel. The Yuletide Cat is the ultimate fashion police, making sure you’re wearing brand new garments for the holiday. And if you don’t have new clothes? Well, that’s where the “eating children” hobby comes into play.
Worn out clothes were a sign of working hard. During the Christmas season, new clothes would be made or gifted to those who had worn through their clothing over the year. Worn clothes were a sign of labor and productivity, which garnered well-deserved new clothes. Hard work = new clothes = good person. So if the cat found that you were wearing your old clothes, that meant you didn’t work hard. That was grounds for snacking on your toddlers.
How Bjúgnakrækir Became my Icelandic Souvenir
There’s a whimsical Christmas store outside of Akureyri. If there were a North Pole rendition of Candyland, this store is what it would look like.
This is Jólagarðurinn, or rather, in English, the Christmas Garden. It’s located in Akureyri, right outside the town.
This store radiates the magic of Christmas. Twinkling lights, shiny baubles, holiday figurines. We wandered around, until we saw it: A massive leg of smoked lamb dangling from the ceiling in the middle of the shop. What?! The merchant hurried over to us, knife in hand, expertly cutting off a piece of the meat. “It’s an Icelandic Christmas tradition.” He explained.
And as I chewed that smokey and salty lamb, I looked over at the adjacent shelf, stocked with a few of these wizard-like men. It was in that store when I learned about the Icelandic Christmas tradition of the Yule Lads. I knew I had to add one to my collection of Icelandic souvenirs.
I picked Bjúgnakrækir, not only because “sausage swiper” is absolutely hilarious, but the craftsmanship devoted to his creation showed through his wayward beard and strung sausages and knitted clothes. He’s handmade by a local artist, Kristín Þorgeirsdóttir, who only makes a limited number of these per year. No Yule Lad is like the other. This is truly a unique Icelandic souvenir.
I also feel like Bjúgnakrækir is kind of my spirit lad – if I were to be a particular holiday nuisance, I would probably be swiping food too. I wouldn’t say no to a food crime of opportunity, especially for a good kielbasa or bratwurst.
P.S. Notice the date – December 20. This is the day that sausage swiper is said to descend from the mountain and cause mayhem! Guard your sausages, friends!
P.P.S. A photoshoot of Icelandic Yule Lads with a cat presents a whole new photography challenge. Hope you liked the feline photobombs. :)
Considering travel to Iceland? Check out my Iceland travel tips and stories in these posts: