Dec 242019
 

Today is called Aðfangadagur in Iceland, the center point of Yule (Jól). They have the common church tradition of lighting a candle per week for 4 weeks beforehand.

But they also have a custom of the Yule Lads, that is exactly symmetric around the 24th. (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/threttandinn/ ). There are 13 Yule Lads (jólasveinarnir) sons of two trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði, living in the Icelandic mountains. They arrive one by one each night for 13 nights, and then depart after the 24th one by one – ending with Epiphany. Each of the Yule Lads is known for a different kind of mischief (for example slamming doors, stealing meat, stealing milk or eating the candles). I’ll place a poem about each one after the recipe. Yule Lads traditionally wear early Icelandic wool clothing but are now known for the more recognizable red and white suit. Starting 13 days before today, Icelandic children set out their shoes by the window for presents from the Yule Lads. Candle Stealer, last to come and leave, was recently voted the favorite, because, although he steals candles to eat them, he is also the most generous.

The Yule Lads’ mother, Grýla, likes to eat children that do not behave. She is often described with many tails, horns hooves, many heads and so on. She also has a huge cat called Jólakötturinn – the Christmas Cat – which eats children who don’t get new clothes for Christmas.

In Iceland people over the Yule holidays most often eat smoked lamb, ptarmigan, turkey, and pork.  But they also enjoy reindeer – which is the reason for this post.  Reindeer for Christmas is like rabbit for Easter — “Would you like another slice of Rudolf?”  Here’s a video for you.

 

Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod

The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer’s sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn’t; he had stiff knees
– not to convenient.

Giljagaur – Gully Gawk

The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.

Stúfur – Stubby

Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims – his favorites.

Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker

The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn’t in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.

Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper

Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he’d come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.

Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker

Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
– he was sure good at that!

Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer

The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.

Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler

Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
– his greed was well known –
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.

Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage-Swiper

The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.

Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper

The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.

Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer

Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.

Ketkrókur Meat-Hook

Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak’s Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meet of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.

Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar

The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
– ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.

Jan 062019
 

Today is Þrettándinn (literally, the thirteenth) in Iceland, their equivalent of Epiphany marking the end of the Christmas season. Icelanders follow both the traditional Christian calendar to mark the season, and also a traditional calendar that specifically mark Yule. According to the church calendar the Advent season begins four Sundays before Christmas Day, with an Advent wreath and 4 candles marking the progress through Advent.

According to the traditional Icelandic calendar, Yule begins 13 days before Christmas, and on the eve of this day, children leave their shoes by a window so that the Yule Lads can leave them small gifts. The Yule Lads are the sons of two trolls living in the Icelandic mountains. Each of the Yule Lads is known for a different kind of mischief (for example slamming doors, stealing meat, stealing milk or eating the candles). The Yule Lads traditionally wear early Icelandic wool clothing but are now more commonly depicted in red and white suits. Each home typically sets up a Christmas tree indoors in the living room with most decorating it on December 11. In addition to the decorations, presents are put underneath the tree. It is also a tradition in many homes to boil skate on the 23rd of December. The day is called Saint Thorlak Mass (Þorláksmessa).

The end of year is divided between two days – the Old Year’s Day (Gamlársdagur) and the New Year’s Day (Nýársdagur). At the night of the former and morning of the latter Icelanders set off fireworks blowing the old year away and welcoming the new one. Thirteen days after Christmas (6th January) Icelanders say goodbye to the Yule Lads and other mystical creatures such as elves and trolls. There are bonfires held throughout the country while the elves, Yule Lads, and Icelanders dance together before saying goodbye until the next Christmas.

According to folk traditions and tales, Þrettándinn is gloriously weird: it is a time of talking animals, aquatic metamorphoses, naked dancing, supernatural gifts, and precognitive dreams. In some ways it is like Samhain in the Celtic world where the human and spirit realms come together for a time. These are a few tales and traditions:

Icelanders make the most of New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn, indulging their pyrotechnic sides: large bonfires are regularly held on both New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn. The bonfires celebrate all of the fairies and elves who are said to be departing on Þrettándinn, and many local celebrations elect Fairy Queens and Kings who lead ‘elf dances’ around the fire. Elf dance traditions may originate with a popular play called “Nýársnóttin,” or ‘New Year’s Eve,’ which was written by Indriði Einarsson in 1907 and first featured the King and Queen of the elves.

According to some local traditions, such as on the Northern island of Grímsey, Þrettándinn is known as “The Great Dreaming Night.” The dreams that you have on this night must be taken very seriously, as they may hold clues to the future.

On the evening of Þrettándinn, many folktales say that cows can suddenly speak. There are many variations on this story—in some versions, for instance, they specifically speak Hebrew. In one version collected by Jón Árnason, a cowhand hangs around in the barn after his work is done on Þrettándinn. Around midnight, the cows all stand up and begin to speak to each other in nonsensical rhyming couplets, which are supposed to drive anyone who overhears them crazy. The cowhand escapes before he fully loses it, but is unable to prove his tale to anyone the next day. In other variations, however, the cowman is not so lucky, and goes mad listening to bovine poetry.

There are many folktales about seals transforming into humans on New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn. In one variation, seals are actually the animal incarnations of an ancient Pharaoh’s army, drowned in the Red Sea while chasing Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt. The drowned soldiers became seals, but their bones remain much like human bones. So once a year, they become human, shedding their skins and dancing naked on beaches. In one famous tale, a man goes walking on a beach and sees many seal skins lying on the shore. He takes one home with him and locks it in a chest. Later, he discovers a beautiful naked woman crying on the same beach because he’s taken her skin and she cannot return to the sea. He takes her home, marries her, and they have many children, but he keeps the seal skin locked away so that she can never escape. One day, however, he forgets to take the key to the chest, and the woman retrieves her skin and returns to the ocean.

Þrettándinn is often thought to be the day in which fairies and elves leave their current dwellings and find new homes. In some traditions, residents walk around the home asking for the family’s continued well-being while those spirits who have arrived to come in, and those who want to leave go on their ways. Þrettándinn is a time to say goodbye to the spirits. As the fairies take their leave and the elves move house, so also the last Yule Lad leaves town. Iceland’s thirteen Yule Lads arrive one by one on the days leading up to Christmas, and then also leave one at a time on the thirteen days following. The last Yule Lad to leave is Kertasníkir, or “Candle Beggar.”

Traditionally, Þrettándinn is the last day for people to get their fill of Christmas decadence. So, Icelanders “burn out” Christmas by finishing off the remains of their candles, “eat up” the season by finishing all the leftovers, and “play out” the day with long card games.

During the holiday season, it is traditional for families to work together to bake small cookies to serve or give to guests. Most common are thin gingerbread cookies which are decorated in many different colors of glaze. Many families also follow the tradition of making Laufabrauð (Leafbread), which is a flat thin bread that is cut out using a special tool and folding technique. Here is a very good instructional video, with no voice over but plenty of visuals and quantities of ingredients given in English (and Spanish !!).