Ever since man started noticing returning events in the nature of the surrounding world, he began interpreting and celebrating them. The summer and winter solstices have lead to celebrations and festivities on both the southern and northern hemisphere. It's not hard to imagine that in the dark winter high up in the northern hemisphere, with it's short daylight periods, the lenghtening of the days -the slow return of light- was something to be thankful for and to celebrate. The mid-winter festival of Yule, that is held in Iceland and other Nordic countries, has it's origins in those celebrations.

The name Yule or Jól or Jul was already in use well before the year 1000. There is no consensus about the origin of the name. Some say that is originates from the Nordic word for "wheel", others claim that Julius Caesar has lend his name to it, but most likely it is just a name that was given to this specific festival.  Later Christians have transformed the pagan festival into Christmas, celebrating the birth of Christ, a symbol of light. Most of the original mid-winter celebrations and festivities around the world lasted for 12 days or longer. The Christian Advent calendar is probably derived from this, but it starts on December 1st and ends the day before Christmas.


The Yule in Iceland starts on December 12th. Then Stekkjastaur, the first of the Jólasveinar or Yuletide lads, will come down from the mountains into town. Although they were originally seen as playful imps whose main interest seemed to be getting their hands on some of the seasonal food and other goodies, or lurking about trying to do some minor mischief, their role has changed a bit and they have more become "santa's" nowadays. It is an old custom for children to put a shoe in the windowsill, when the Jólasveinar come to town. If the child has behaved good, it will find a little gift in his shoe. If not, there will be a potato in the shoe.
Yule gifts are an old custom too. They have always been of a practical nature. In past centuries a piece of clothing and a pair of ornate shoes (Jólaskór - Yule shoes) was given by the employer. It was not so much a present, but more a reward for work well done. In the early 20th century it became a custom to give a candle to each child and later that was accompanied by.......a deck of cards!
Nowadays toys are a favourite gift and a book is a good second, but there's still always a new piece of clothing too, a necessary ingredient for a good Yule.


The Yuletide lads are the sons of  Grýla and Leppalúđi, a pair of child eating and bloodthirsty old people. Leppalúđi is bedridden and Grýla is said to steal children, that have not behaved good, during the Yuletide.  That made her a popular means of making children behave throughout the centuries.

There are 13 Jólasveinar and there are 13 cards in a suit, so it is not a surprise that each of these decks has a repeated series of 13 designs, from Ace to King. Although they have been known under many names -at least seventy- there seems to be consensus about their present names.

 We'll introduce the Jólasveinar through 4 decks, that were published on Iceland during the last 5 years:

1/ A childrens's deck of Santa's, slightly smaller than usual, with cartoonlike drawings. The deck was published in 1999 and contains 52 cards and 4 extra cards (jokers?).
2/ The "Jólasveinaspilin" was drawn by Lúđvik Kalmari Viđissyni. It was printed by Carta Mundi, contains 52 cards and 3 jokers and was published in 2004. The backdesign (first picture above) shows the decent of the Jólasveinar.
3/ The "Islensku Jólasveinarnir" or "Icelandic Yuletide Lads" deck shows Grýla, Leppalúđi and the Jólaköttur (Yule Cat) on the backdesign (above on the left). The deck consists of 52 cards and 2 jokers and was probably printed by Carta Mundi. Published  by Snerru
útgáfan from Reykjavik and illustrated by Selma Jónsdóttir.
4/ The "Jólasveinarnir Jóla Spil" or "Icelandic Yule Lads" deck was published by Sólarfilma from Reykjavik, probably in 2004. It was illustrated by Brian Pilkington and has 52 cards and 2 similar jokers, representing Grýla.



Stekkjastaur is the first to come into town.

In the different decks we notice that this character is obviously not spelled the same in Icelandic, nor is the English translation consistent. In deck 4 the word "Stekkjarstaur" is used and the English "Sheep Cot Clod" from deck 3 means something completely different than the "Sheep Worrier" from deck 4. Also notice that the Stekkjastaur from deck 1 has the wrong design. The design of the Giljagaur here below would be fitting.







Giljagaur is after the milk, as told in this (translated) Icelandic rhyme........

Gully Gawk was the second,
With his grey old head.
He crept down from the mountain,
and into the cow shed.
He hid in the stables
- And stole the froth,
While the milkmaid chatted
Up the stable boy.




Stúfur is a short and tubby one. He seems rather nice, but in deck 3 we see the object of his desire: a pan. He likes to pick the foodbits that are stuck to the pan.





Ţvörusleikir likes to lick the spoons or pot-scrapers, or in Icelandic rhyme......

The fourth, Pot-Scraper Licker,
Was a very skinny lad.
And he was very happy,
When the cook went away.
He ran like lightning
And grabbed the pot-scraper,
Held it fast with both hands,
As it was sometimes slippery.




Pottasleikir is the pot licker or scraper. He knocks on the door and when everybody rushes to see who it is, he runs to the pot and has a meal.





Askasleikir's favourite is a bowl, preferably a full one........

The sixth, Bowl Licker,
Was without a peer. -
From under the beds, he
Pushed his ugly head.

When the bowls were placed
In front of cat and dog,
He cunningly snatched them
And licked till he was full.


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