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Icelandic Christmas Folklore is Terrifying

The most surprising thing about my trip to Iceland this summer was not how shockingly expensive everything was, but the rich folklore that permeates the Icelandic culture. Most notably was the Christmas folklore of Gryla, the mountain witch, the Yule lads, and the infamous Yule Cat. For starters, Gryla is giant, hideous troll that lives deep in a cave on the side of a remote mountain and only sets off as Christmas approaches to snatch naughty children for her yuletide feast. Much like Krampus, Gryla has hooves instead of feet, two horns, and an eye in the back of her head. Lovely.

She also happens to be the mother of the yule lads, a lot of 13 petty and mischievous imps that each have a particular obsession with one thing. Among their compulsions is a pot licker, a door slammer, a yogurt glutton, a sausage stealer, a window peeper, and a door sniffer. They’re prankster trolls, but are also known to leave little presents for good children (or rotted potatoes for the bad ones) in shoes left on window sills for the 13 nights leading up to Christmas.

If all this wasn’t terrifying enough, Gryla is also accompanied by her pet know as the Yule Cat, an ill-tempered giant black cat that prowls around the town looking through windows. If you haven’t received at least one article of new clothing to wear on Christmas Eve, he will take you and eat you. Those socks from grandma aren’t looking too shabby now, right?

I learned much of the folklore on the Haunted Walk of Reykjavik and perused the many gift shops in the downtown area. Even in the middle of summer I found lots of interesting black cat ornaments, stuffed toys, books, and sweaters. I found out that even adults who don't entertain such "fancy stories" would never be caught without new clothing on Christmas day. "Rather be safe... just in case it's true," said the shopkeeper with a smile at Jolahusid, the best Christmas shop in Reykjavik.

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