“Sigrun & the Yule Lads”

Sigrun had a plan. When the Yule Lads came down from the mountains this year, she would have a few mischievous surprises of her own. Just thirteen sleeps to Christmas and it was time for her to act.

It was a freezing day on the farm. But then, this was Iceland. The clue to the cold was in the name. The wind was sweeping across the lowlands and carrying swirls of snow on its chilling drift.

Sigrun was heading indoors. Her breath was visible every step of the way. She had done her work in the sheep shed and smiled a knowing smile. Sigrun was feeling altogether smug at just how clever she had been. It was the type of cleverness that had been missing when she was aged seven, eight and then again nine. She deduced that turning ten in October must have had something to do with her new-found brain power.

The idea came to her only a few days earlier, when she had placed her favourite wooden clog on the windowsill in anticipation of the Yuletide visitors: the clog carved and painted so beautifully by her grandfather. Sigrun liked the idea of receiving presents from the Yule Lads but not the idea that they could cause all kinds of mischief in return and never face the consequences. I think it’s time someone gave them a taste of their own medicine, she thought. They’re too naughty by half – and they’ve been getting away with it for years.

“Well, not at this house anymore,” she said to herself, thinking out loud.

Tonight, as ancient tradition had dictated, the first of the thirteen Yule Lads would trek from the mountains and visit homes across Iceland to leave sweets and treats for the good boys and girls…rotting potatoes for the naughty ones. Tomorrow night, the second Yule Lad would take his turn and the following night the third would make his delivery. So it would continue up until Christmas. It had been this way for centuries. Gifts on just one night from Santa Claus had no appeal to the children of Iceland. Not when they could receive thirteen Christmas deliveries from the legendary Yule Lads.

The word ‘lad’ might make you think of young, sprightly things, full of vigour. But this bunch were old…very old. Vigorous they were not. Most had white beards and big bellies, so they had that much in common with Santa. Some were bald, one had a wooden leg, others creaked at the knees. They were what you might call troll-like. None wore vibrant red suits or flew in on a reindeer-pulling sleigh. But as Christmas drew near, their appetite for mischief was as big and youthful as when their legend began many moons ago. The festive season gave them energy. It was their elixir of life.

Each Yule Lad had a particular character trait. Think of Snow White’s dwarves – Grumpy always being grumpy and Sneezy always sneezing – and you’ll get the idea. The Lads’ names matched their mischief. Some were more obvious than others. Spoon Licker: he licks spoons. Door Slammer: he slams doors. Sausage Swiper: he swipes sausages. You get the picture.

The name of the first visitor, though, needed some explanation to those not raised on Icelandic farms. This Yule Lad was named Sheep-Cote Clod and he liked to suckle milk from the ewes in the sheep shed. Sigrun thought this was a most unpleasant way to start the Christmas festivities. What had her father’s fabulously fleecy female flock ever done to deserve such indignity? The sheep could meet unwanted attention with a nasty kick, but their aim wasn’t always good. Sigrun wanted to make sure Clod would pay for his naughtiness.

Now it should be made clear at this point that Sigrun, so blonde of locks and sparkly bright of eye, was known to be a good girl. In all her previous nine Christmastimes, she had only twice received rotting potatoes in her shoe – and on both occasions Door Slammer had been responsible. He discovered Sigrun had slammed a door or two in temper and wasn’t happy. That was his job and his job alone. Therefore, she twice got a mouldy spud from him rather than a delicious treat. Overall, though, she had received shoes full of goodies through the years. But we all have a little mischief inside of us. Sigrun was no different.

Sigrun believed she’d get cheeky pleasure from knowing the Yule Lads had not had things all their own way when visiting her farm. How she would giggle when her plan took effect. As we all know, laughter is one of the greatest gifts of all. Yes, she could have carried on collecting candy by the cart-load and presents by the pile. But she was willing to give up all that to gain some sweet revenge for the sheep tonight, the cows tomorrow night and her family on the eleven other visiting nights to come. Pabbi – that’s Dad to you and me – always had a special gift for her on Christmas Eve and her grandparents always gave her money in a sweet-filled jar. These were presents enough for Sigrun.

Iceland had some unusual food traditions. Sigrun had lived there all her life and still thought some of them to be odd and hazardous to health. Hakarl was one such dish. It was basically foul-smelling shark meat that had been buried underground for months. Legend had it that people used to wee on the meat as it was being buried to help it stew and brew beneath the earth. Pabbi had assured her that was no longer the case.

But Hakarl was still incredibly smelly to the nose and terribly bitter to the tongue. To taste it was to guarantee a face resembling a bulldog chewing an angry wasp. Pabbi liked to buy hakarl for his older visitors over Christmas, especially his father. Sigrun stole some from the packet in the larder and, braving the stench, smeared it over the tummies of the sheep. What a shocking taste Sheep-Cote Clod would get as he tried to suckle the ewes. He’d surely be sent running from the shed, never wanting to return. Sigrun’s grin widened.

“What are you smiling about?” said her elder brother Gunnar as she entered the house.

“I’ve been preparing the sheep,” she replied, “ready for tonight.”

“I thought you’d outgrown that Yule Lad nonsense. Pabbi leaves the gifts – not some bearded little trolls.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said a defiant Sigrun. “Good job the sheep have got me to look out for them.”

“Yuk…you smell of pee,” said Gunnar as his sister walked by. “Have you wet yourself?”

“I don’t do that kind of thing, thank you very much. And you should talk…you spray the bathroom floor every time you wee.” And with that she flounced off to her bedroom.

Sigrun had considered removing her colourful clog from the windowsill but thought better of it. She would use it to confirm that her plans had worked. If she woke tomorrow to find a potato in her shoe, she would know Sheep-Cote Clod had fallen foul to her mischief and repaid her the only way he knew how. She looked out of her bedroom window, across to the red roof of the sheep shed and could barely contain her excitement as to what might unfold there in just a few short hours.

The next morning, Sigrun rubbed the sleep from her eyes and peered at the windowsill. There was her shoe, filled with sweets and chocolates and with a roll of paper tucked inside. There was no rotten potato.

Sigrun flung back the duvet, crawled across the bed and reached for the piece of paper. She unfurled it and read: “Whose mischief was this? I believe it was you. It made me puke up trying to suckle that ewe. I was angry at first but then took stock, thinking you must be a chip off the Yule Lads’ block.”

Sheep-cote Clod had visited and she had made him sick. She imagined the scene in the sheep shed overnight: a cocky troll suddenly an up-chucking troll. How funny, she thought. How brilliant. Yet, sick as he was, he still felt her worthy of gifts. His note suggested he even admired her antics. What was going on? Sigrun had not bargained for this.

Next night, the second Yule Lad set to call at the dead of night was Gully Gawk. He traditionally hid in gullies, waiting for his moment to steal the frothy, creamy top off buckets of cow’s milk. In other words, the best bit. Sigrun’s plan was simple: to sneak to the dairy after Pabbi’s work there was done and replace the milk with her dirty bath water. She put an added squirt of bubble bath in each bucket, swirled the water around with her hand and created a foamy top.

Yule Lads were not known for their intelligence, especially Gully Gawk. When he crept into the dairy and saw the pails of froth, he instantly believed it to be creamy milk and lapped it up – gulping some of the dirty bath water, too. He burped a huge burp. Soapy suds came ballooning from his mouth. Another belch. Another mouthful of bubbles. And then another…and another. Gully Gawk’s head was soon engulfed by foam.

Sigrun had hoped for such a scene. She even dreamt it was so. The next morning when she awoke, her shoe on the windowsill was again overflowing with treats. Once again, there was a note amid the sweets and trinkets. It read: “Whose mischief was this? I believe you caused the trouble. Creamy milk turned to soap, made me cough up bubbles. I was angry at first but then took stock, thinking you must be a chip off the Yule Lads’ block.”

Sigrun was puzzled. Being mischievous – perhaps even naughty – was bringing her rewards. If she had known this before, maybe she could have been much less well-behaved through her years and still been given Christmas treats. Pabbi had told her this was not the case. Surely, he wouldn’t lie to her.

December 14th. Night number three: Yule Lad number three. This was Stubby’s night. As his named suggested, he was short and squat. He liked to steal food from frying pans.

Pabbi left some juicy pieces of steak in the pan on the stove before going to bed. He did this every year on this particular night: his offering to Stubby. It was a bit like leaving out mince pies or cookies for Santa. Sigrun thought all the meat should be enjoyed by Pabbi and her family, including the dog. Her father worked hard to put food on the table. Why should a naughty troll benefit?

Once she heard her father’s door close with a thud, Sigrun tip-toed to the kitchen with a tube of glue in hand. She squirted the glue into the frying pan and chuckled to herself, before creeping back to her bedroom. Stubby’s greedy ways were about to become stickily unstuck.

And that’s where we leave the story for now. How will Stubby react? What does Sigrun have in store for the other Yule Lads as Christmas draws near? Check back for the next chapter of the story…and we’ll have the conclusion in time for the start of our own Christmas countdown.