The Icelandic ‘Yule Lads’ were an unexpected Christmas gift

Stuck in Reykjavik after a missed connection, a mom-to-be gained perspective
By Erinn SalgePublished on 12/07/2018 at 11:23 AM EDT
The Yule Lads await tourists at Dimmuborgir Lake Mývatn area, Iceland. Courtesy of Visit North Iceland

The run through the Keflavik terminal, frantic but tinged with hope, would be an impossibility soon. But at 18 weeks pregnant I was still light enough on my feet to attempt to make our connecting flight to Paris. After questionable weather in Newark, some rough evening sickness, and a sleepless night, our cost-saving measure of adding a layover seemed foolhardy. We missed our flight, and we were stuck in Iceland for the day.

Which actually resembled, well, night. At 11 a.m. we were packed into a cab, whizzing our way toward Reykjavik, pressed in by the oppressive dark, but levied by our persistently cheerful driver. He played us every popular song he could think of by an Icelandic band, chatted up the fish and reindeer meal options, and bandied about possible activities for our stay. A skating rink in front of the hotel. Cured fish. All not possible in my current state.

He was congratulatory about the baby, and as we stepped into our hotel elevator a sign on the wall caught my eye.

“What are the ‘Yule Lads’?” I asked my husband, leaning in closer to the laminated poster. A series of watercolor sketches showed 13 different goblin creatures, in various states of mischief.

“No clue,” he said, laughing. We exited the elevator, but the Yule Lads followed us, seemingly everywhere.

These popular figures from Icelandic folklore are usually portrayed as being mischievous pranksters, who put rewards or punishments into shoes of children in the nights leading up to Christmas (aka Yule). Numbering 13, with names as unpronounceable to my English-speaking tongue as any of the other words in Iceland, the activities of the lads ranged from the gentle “Spoon Licker” to the law-breaking “Door Sniffer” and the endlessly creepy “Window Peeper.” The lads visit children for the 13 days leading up to Christmas, wreaking havoc and answering only to their mother, Gryla, an imposing troll-like figure. They were carved in wood outside storefronts, inked in children’s books indoors, and even present, larger than life ,in the airport. But above all, they were available for any tourist to take home in the form of a Christmas ornament.

Ornaments have always been how my husband and I have commemorated our vacations. Before I got pregnant, we were fairly intrepid and our Christmas trees bore the evidence of our travels. A clay sheep, googly eyed and bearing IRELAND below his tiny hooves. Santa on the Eiffel Tower. A Dia de los Muertos skull that my husband brought back from a business trip. Pre-baby, these were two of our defining qualities merged into one: We loved to travel, and we loved Christmas.

Yet on this trip, trying to select whether we’d buy an ornament of the Candle Beggar or the Sausage Swiper, carving out our identities seemed more important than ever. Our character as a family wasn’t dependent on choosing the perfect Yule Lad, but it was certainly in need of examination.

Yule Lad
Erinn’s Yule Lad ornament that she purchased in Iceland

As we were both raised Catholic, Christmas had an obvious place of importance in our lives growing up, but we’d drifted away over the years. While I was still drawn to the sanctity of the season, it had little to do with the religious origins at this point in my life. Yet in losing the church celebrations, with their candles and organ music, I was discovering our own interpretation of the holiday.

We threw a party for our friends every year, baking cookies, mixing festive drinks, packing our tidy colonial to the brim with the voices and bodies of people we didn’t manage to see at any other time of year. I’d pull up to the driveway and take in the hundreds of lights and decorations my husband meticulously arranged on our house, marveling at the glow on nights when the sun went down early, leaving me blue. And we were devoted gift-givers–to our families, people in need, and also to each other. Each parcel carefully wrapped, creatively thought-out, furtively bought and shipped to locations where the other person could not suss out their present. In forging our two-person family we alternated decoration preferences, years of multicolor-light decorated trees and white light trees, tinsel versus ribbon, his and hers. Everything about us was Christmas, and everything was about to change.

So we stood huddled in those shops, letting our fingers run over the knobby knees and noses of the Yule Lads. Trying to picture where they would fit on the tree, where the tree would fit, what life would look like when tiny hands grabbed for the lads hanging on the branches. We embraced the Yule Lads as mascots for our trip, and for our lives as a quirky, Christmas-obsessed couple. Our lives were about to change in deeply fundamental ways, but as I memorized the strange faces of the lads, the lights of Reykjavik, this weird, liminal space in our vacation and our lives, I saw the best parts of our relationship extending to our new roles. We would read children’s Christmas books to our baby boy, we would decorate the tree with him at our feet, we would make him as attuned to the magic of the season of giving as we were.

As I said goodbye to the giant statue of Gryla, the mother, in the airport, I was ready to embark on my own life as a mom, one tiny Yule Lad at a time.

Learn more about the Yule Lads from Visit North Iceland and watch as they visit on Dec. 9!

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