Getting Even With Gryla
infamous ogress deserves more than a passing mention
Picture of Gryla by Hlín Gunnarsdóttir in Barnanna hátíð blíð
The phrase "naughty or nice" can take on a menacing meaning around Christmas time in Iceland. The question is not whether children will get presents or not, but rather will they end up in Gryla’s pot.
Even with modern lights intruding in every corner, it is still easy to imagine how, during the long dark winter nights of centuries past, tales of trolls and supernatural beings came to life so vividly. Gryla, probably the most horrifying monster of them all, is first mentioned in writing in the 13th century as a creature with 15 tails. Three hundred years later she still has 15 tails, but on each are 100 bags, with 20 children in every sack... This is still found in a popular children’s book of lullabies.
Most of the stories told about Gryla were to frighten children – her favourite dish was a stew of naughty kids and she had an insatiable appetite. The ogress was not directly linked to Christmas until the 17th century. By that time she had become the mother of the roguish band of so-called Yuletide Lads. Such was the power of the terrifying creature and her offspring that a public decree was issued in 1746 prohibiting the use of Gryla and the Yuletide Lads to terrify children.
A colourful family
According to old tales, Gryla was married three times. Her first two husbands, Gustur and Boli, were no match against Gryla and, for that matter, neither was the third one, Leppalúdi. Resilient, nonetheless, he still hangs on, living with her in their cave in the mountains with the big black Christmas cat, yet another child abuser and abductor. The huge cat goes after the kids that get no new clothes for the holidays.
Through his studies, folklorist Árni Björnsson has discovered the names of 72 children who are attributed to Gryla. Prolific and fertile, she most likely had more. In addition to the 13 Yuletide Lads, the four best known are Leppur, Skreppur, Langleggur and Leidindaskjóda. Several different versions have been recorded of Gryla’s family and it was not until the publication of folk tales collected by Jón Árnason in 1862 that the number of Yuletide Lads was set at 13 (some still swear by nine).
During the 19th century, the Lads and even their hideous mother saw a gradual improvement in their image. From child snatchers they developed into thieving tricksters who descended from the mountains one by one during the thirteen days before Christmas. Each of the lads has a name which identifies his mischievous character: Stekkjastaur (Sheepfold-stick), Giljagaur (Gulley-oaf), Stúfur (Shorty), Thvörusleikir (Spoon-licker), Pottasleikir (Pot-licker), Askasleikir (Bowl-licker), Hurdaskellir (Door-slammer), Skyrgámur (Curd-glutton), Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-pilferer), Gluggagægir (Peeping-Tom), Gáttathefur (Sniffer), Kjötkrókur (Meat-hook) and Kertasníkir (Candle-beggar).
The sanitised version
The idea of a stout Santa clad in red and bestowing gifts worked its way to Iceland at the turn of this century. The Lads were basically reformed and they changed their outfits from natural woollens to red and white. Nonetheless, they retained their old names and their mother remains as ugly as ever. The custom of their placing a small gift in children’s shoes became common around the middle of the century, and is actually an excellent way to make kids behave during the hectic days leading up to Christmas. After all, nobody wants a piece of rock or an old potato in their shoe.
Today, poor Gryla has been reduced to a grumpy, old, albeit grotesque, woman. Long gone are the days of glory when just her name sent kids shivering under their beds. Instead she has to support and care for her lazy husband Leppalúdi while trying to raise her 13 unruly Lads.