Sigrun & the Yule Lads
No more pan guzzling. No more candle nabbing. And most definitely no more window peeping. 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. “Sorry if it’s a bit pongy,” Sigrun said in a sincerely apologetic tone. The sheep bleated their understanding. At least that’s what Sigrun believed. It made her feel less guilty.
She headed 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 intelligence.
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 crafty and 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 deliveries. It would continue like this up until Christmas. It had been this way for hundreds of years. Gifts from Santa Claus had become more commonplace for the children of Iceland from a distant point somewhere in the twentieth century. But receiving thirteen Christmas deliveries from the legendary Yule Lads was a much longer and dearly-held tradition; a tradition to be savoured.
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. They had that much in common with Santa. They were what you might call troll-like. Some were bald, one had a wooden leg, others creaked at the knees. None wore vibrant red suits or flew in on a reindeer-pulling sleigh. But as Christmas drew near, their appetite for this most magnificent of seasons could only be matched by Santa and his North Pole crew of elves. The significant difference was the mischief factor.
Although some of Santa’s dark helpers and unscrupulous sidekicks had been menacing figures in ancient times, the main man had always been full of good cheer and short on ill-will. The odd piece of coal in a Christmas stocking here and there. That was about it. For the Yule Lads, though, the mischief at their core was as big, zestful and youthful as when their legend began many, 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? True, the sheep could meet unwanted attention with a nasty kick. However, their aim wasn’t always accurate. Sigrun wanted to make sure Clod would pay for his frankly distasteful behaviour, just in case the kicks missed their target.
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 (maybe even three, come to think of it) 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 this Christmas. How she would giggle when her plan took effect and, 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 Daddy to you and me – always had a special gift for her on Christmas Day and her grandparents usually gave her money in a sweet-filled jar. Then there was always the prospect of a surprise present from Santa Claus. Even a little something from her annoying brother was not unheard of. That was ample 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. The story goes that people used to urinate on the meat (yes, piddle on it…wee on it…whiz on it, call it what you will) as it was being buried to help it stew and brew beneath the earth. Pabbi had recently assured her this kind of crude fermentation was a thing of the past.
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?” asked her elder brother Gunnar as she entered the house. “I’ve been preparing the sheep,” Sigrun replied, “ready for tonight.” “Preparing? What do you mean by preparing?” Gunnar asked. “Just that I’m preparing a welcome for Clod – that’s all.”
“I thought you’d outgrown that Yule Lad rubbish. Pabbi leaves the gifts – not some bearded little trolls.”
“Best to keep your mouth shut when you don’t know what you’re talking about,” said a defiant Sigrun.
“Eeew…you smell of pee,” said Gunnar as his sister walked by. “Have you wet yourself?” He chuckled. Gunnar, freckly and feisty, thought himself funny at all times.
“I don’t do that kind of thing, thank you very much. And you should talk…you spray the bathroom floor every time you pee. Have you got a sprinkler system built in to your pants or what?” With that she flounced off to her bedroom.
Sigrun opened an old book, handed down through the generations, containing her favourite poem about the Yule Lads, written by Jóhannes úr Kötlum. It first appeared in a 1932 book entitled “Jólin Koma”– which means “Christmas is Coming”. She learnt much of what she knew about the Yule Lads from these very pages.
Sigrun was momentarily distracted as she glanced across the room. She briefly considered removing her colourful clog from the windowsill, but thought better of it. Instead, she would use it to confirm that her plans had worked. If she woke tomorrow to find a potato in her wooden 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. Dancing auroras lit up the distant Arctic skyline: a stunning backdrop for the opening night of Sigrun’s carefully orchestrated drama.
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 Sigrun 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’s going on? she asked herself. Sigrun had not bargained for this.
“Pabbi, I need to ask you something,” said Sigrun. “I’m listening,” said her father, who was a broad-shouldered man with a greying beard and kind eyes. The bags beneath those eyes spoke of a life of hardship; of the pressures of raising his two children alone since he was widowed five years ago.
“Did you put sweets in my shoe last night?”
“What makes you think that?” he asked.
“Cos, I was left some treats and I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t have been on the Yule Lads’ nice list.”
“Clod would leave you some treats. You’re a good girl.” He paused, then continued in an inquisitive tone: “Unless you’ve been hiding something.” Pabbi looked at his daughter quizzically.
“Like?” asked Sigrun.
“Like smearing hakarl on the sheep…hakarl I’d paid good money for and that’s now stinking out the sheep shed.”
“Oh…yeah…that was me. But I only used a tiny smidge…and it was for a very good reason,” claimed Sigrun.
“I’ll be the judge of that. Explanation please,” demanded her father.
Sigrun produced her notebook, the one with her cartoon doodles all over the cover, and read her plans from the pages. Pabbi listened intently.
“That’s pretty much it,” Sigrun exclaimed, once she’d read through her idea. “I’ve got the other twelve nights sorted as well.”
“Oh, you have, have you? You’ve given no thought to Gryla, then?”
Gryla was fabled to be the Yule Lads’ mother, partner of fearsome Leppaluoi. A more wicked pair of creatures it was hard to imagine. Sigrun was especially aware of Gryla. All Icelandic children were. But they did not fear her like youngsters once did.
Legend had it that Gryla would sneak into the homes of the naughtiest children, bundle them into a sack and turn them into a stew back in her mountain lair. She was portrayed as a hideously ugly being, some kind of gruesome old hag, and had given many a child many a nightmare. Down the decades, though, Gryla’s role of scaring children into being good little boys and girls was increasingly tempered. The more educated Icelandic children became and the more confident and enlightened the nation became, the more Gryla slipped into the shadows.
“Pabbi, you sound just like grandpa,” said Sigrun with an indignant voice. “Gryla is so last century. It’s all about the Yule Lads nowadays. You really have to get on it.”
Pabbi raised his eyebrows, saying with a sigh: “Kids hey. Can’t live with ‘em…can’t feed ‘em to Gryla anymore.”
For hundreds of years, the people of Iceland found the frozen land a punishing place to make a living. Hardship was a constant and so, in turn, was fear. Fear of survival as much as anything. Gryla thrived in that harsh, unsentimental air. As Iceland developed and people prospered, being controlled by fear was no longer an option. There was space for benevolence and it came in the form of the Yule Lads and their gifts. Given their ancestry, it is hardly surprising their deliveries came with a price tag of theft, menace and mischief. But as Sigrun’s grandfather liked to point out: “You kids don’t know you’re born. We often had the darkest and scariest of Christmastimes. I’d have taken the Yule Lads’ visits every day of the week and twice on Sundays if Gryla had stayed in the mountains and left us alone.”
Once, Sigrun pinned down her grandfather to provide more facts behind his generic stories of darkness and fear. Grandpa conceded he had never actually seen Gryla, but explained: “Simply knowing she was heading to town at Yuletide was enough to put the frighteners on me and my siblings.”
Sigrun probed some more. “But how did you know she existed if you never saw her?”
“You can’t see the oxygen you’re breathing, but you know it exists – you’d be dead without it. Seeing is not always believing. If we’d not believed in Gryla, we could’ve ended up dead and cooked in a stew.” declared Grandpa. Sigrun thought better of asking questions about Gryla after that.
Christmas was striding closer. The next night, the second Yule Lad set to call with his mischievous ways was Gully Gawk. He traditionally hid in ditches and 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.
“What’s it worth to you for me to keep my gob shut?” asked Gunnar. He was a brother not averse to a little blackmail.
“About what?” countered Sigrun. She knew better than to drop herself in it without just cause or evidence.
Gunnar, looking altogether sly and shifty, answered: “I saw you scooping up your bath water. You weren’t exactly discreet. What’s she up to? I thought. So, I followed you. Tut, tut Sigrun.” Gunnar was now shaking his head, in the way adults do when they condescendingly scold you. But Gunnar was only fourteen and the way he was doing it was even more irritating and vexing. “What would Pabbi say if he’d seen you pour away the milk and cream like that. What a waste. Bad girl.”
“Shows how little you know, as per usual,” argued Sigrun. “I poured it into milk churns, actually.” Another thought came to her in an unexpected flash. “I was simply recycling my bath water to wash out the sheds. Haven’t you heard of ecology and global warming?”
Gunnar was flummoxed. It didn’t take much. “A slice short of a full loaf” is how Grandma once referred to him. While he was pondering the merits of Sigrun’s explanation, she had waltzed off with a parting shot: “Keeping your gob shut is worth precisely nothing to me.”
A bit like Gunnar, the Yule Lads were not known for their intelligence, especially Gully Gawk. That night, when he crept into the dairy and saw the pails of froth created by Sigrun, 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 big belch. BUUUURRRP! Another mouthful of bubbles. And then another…and another. Gully Gawk’s head was soon engulfed by foam. What a thieving fool.
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 bracelet charms. 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 confused. Being mischievous – perhaps even downright naughty – was bringing her rewards. If she had known this before, she could have been badly behaved on many more occasions through the years and perhaps still been deemed worthy of Christmas gifts. How blinking frustrating, she thought. Oh well, too late now. On with the plan.
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 Claus. Sigrun, however, thought all the meat should be enjoyed by Pabbi and her family, including the always-ravenous dog Viktor. Her father worked hard to put food on the table and the dog ran miles rounding up sheep. Why should a miserable old 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.
Stubby arrived soon after. He was so small, he could barely see over the top of the stove. He was just tall enough to spy the pan. He sniffed the air and could smell the steak. But there was another smell: a curious smell. What sauce was this? he asked himself. He reached out a stubby arm and pulled the frying pan towards him, then buried his face in the pan as he quickly gobbled up the succulent steak.
Before the Yule Lad was finished with his stolen meal, he felt a strange sensation on his face and beneath his beard. He let go of the handle, but the pan stayed stuck to his face. The glue had worked its way into his whiskers. He made all manner of grunting and snorting noises as he attempted to pull the pan from his face. But try as he might, Stubby could not remove the offending utensil. Sigrun’s plan could not have worked better.
The next morning, Sigrun woke to find Christmas cookies and another note. It read: “Whose mischief was this? I believe you carry the can. You made it so my face would stick fast to the pan. I was angry at first but then took stock, thinking you must be a chip off the Yule Lads’ block.”
The next three Yule Lads liked to lick unwashed pots and cutlery, while snaffling any leftovers they could find. December 15th: Spoon Licker came calling. He was unusually tall and thin for a Yule Lad. That was probably because he was too preoccupied with the scraps stuck to spoons to ever eat a hearty meal. Sigrun dipped several spoons in her homemade pepper paste: hot enough to burn Spoon Licker’s mouth and send steam blowing out of his ears. “WHAAAAA!” he cried. “TOOOOOOT!” whistled his ears as the steam shot forth as if from a pair of erupting geysers.
December 16th: Pot Licker was next in line. He thought he had hit the jackpot when he found a stew pot on the hearth and started to eat the contents. Only then did he discover he was eating warm meaty cat food that Sigrun had put there. “YUK! YUK! YUUUUK!” he bellowed, realising what he had swallowed. He shoved his fingers in his mouth and attempted to sweep the horrid taste from his tongue. He only succeeded in making himself gag on his chunky mitts. A little bit of sick came up in the back of his throat and disgusted him anew. “EEEEEWWW…YUKKITY YUK!” he continued, loudly and for quite some time.
December 17th: Bowl Licker was the visitor. He liked to feed from ‘askurs’: bowls with lids that Icelanders, back in the old days, used to put under their beds for midnight feasting. Sigrun got out her pot of glue once more and sealed the lids to the bowls. Remember, Yule Lads are not the brightest so he wasted several hours trying to take the lids off and missed out on eating from other bowls under other beds at other farms in the land.
After each visit, Sigrun woke the next morning to find gifts in her shoe and notes from the Yule Lads. The pattern was established. Sigrun would play her own mischievous prank, the Yule Lads would reward her. But still she struggled to understand why.
Sigrun enjoyed her visits to her grandparents immensely, largely because – as Pabbi succinctly put it – they let her “get away with murder”. That’s a rather extreme way of saying they indulged her. The inquisitive youngster liked flicking through old photo albums, delving into grandma’s treasure box and asking both elders a multitude of questions. On this particular day, Sigrun was at first pondering names and why it was the Yule Lads didn’t conform to Icelandic tradition.
“Why don’t they have ‘son’ in their names, Grandma? It’s practically the law.”
“That’s an interesting question – and one I’m not sure I’m able to answer,” admitted Sigrun’s grandmother.
Iceland has a few oddities when it comes to names. There are no family names, like Smith and Jones. When couples marry, the wife’s name doesn’t change. Children’s names have to come from an approved list. Male names end in ‘son’ and female names in ‘dottir’ – that’s to say son and daughter – although it’s now acceptable for boys to adopt their mother’s names: for example, Ivar Helguson is Ivar, son of Helga. So yes: lots of name oddities to get one’s head around.
Sigrun had worked all this through her brain. “If Gryla really is the Yule Lads’ mother, their names should all end Gryluson, shouldn’t they?” she asked, somewhat rhetorically.
“Folk here can go by one name if they choose, especially the famous. Look at our wonderful pop star Bjork. There are few people more famous in Iceland than the Yule Lads…even her. If she can have a snappy name, why not them?” Grandma was pleased enough with her explanation, although quite where the word snappy came from she wasn’t certain.
“I suppose,” said Sigrun. She was quiet for only a matter of seconds, watching her gran sewing a name on to a blanket she had made for a Christmas gift, before asking: “Have you ever done something naughty and been rewarded for it?”
“Erm…well…let me think. Nothing is springing to mind, dear. Be good, do good and goodness will be yours in turn. That’s what I believe. Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” Sigrun paused and pondered once again. “You really are old and wise, grandma.”
“Less of the old, dear.”
“I wonder if they don’t know any different. That’s always possible.”
“The Yule Lads.”
“Oh, we’re back on that subject, are we?”
“We never left it really. This goodness thing – maybe they think they are doing good, in their own way. They do leave presents,” Sigrun added with the emphasis on ‘do’. “True,” said grandmother, “which, if you think about it, is all the more impressive considering their parents. Hardly the best role models.”
“Yeaaahh,” said Sigrun, as if a new light had dawned. “I’m suddenly conflicted.”
“Conflicted, hey? How old are you again?”
Grandmother stopped her sewing and revealed: “The Yule Lads almost disappeared altogether in the mid eighteenth century. That’s, what? More than two hundred and fifty years ago. The story passed down to me was that they were so badly behaved, so much like their wicked mother and father, that our ancestors banned any mention of them. Maybe the Lads decided being a chip off the old block wasn’t such a great idea and they had to change their ways or be banished forever.”
Chip off the old block. Sigrun knew that phrase well from the notes left to her by the Yule Lads.
“But still, at the core of their being,” said grandmother, “they simply can’t help themselves, every now and then, from being utterly naughty, if not quite wicked.”
“Not quite wicked,” Sigrun repeated, staring off in to the distance. “But utterly naughty.”
Mind made up on what she would do next, Sigrun swiftly switched to the topic of festive food. “Grandma, can I have some Laufabrauo, please?”
Door Slammer was a tricky one. Sigrun pondered long and hard how to thwart him. He loved to keep people awake at night, even scaring them with his door slamming and floor stomping ways. She decided it was best to stop him at the front door, with a bucket of smelly gunk, made up of bits of cow pats and rotting vegetable slops. As soon as he entered door one, the bucket – hanging over the doorway – would tip and spill the gunky mess on his head. He’d flee without a single door being slammed in that farmhouse.
Door Slammer was the boldest and most brazen of Yule Lads. He had bulging arm muscles he liked to show off by rolling up the sleeves of his cheesecloth shirt. Such muscles gave him serious slamming power. He turned the doorknob to Sigrun’s front door and, as he pushed it ajar, took a big stride into the hallway. CLANK! The metal bucket fell. WHOOSH! The slimy, stinking gunk plopped on Door Slammer’s head and squelched down the back of his shirt. It was gloopy and cold and made him shiver. He forgot all about slamming the door.
The rest of the Yule Lads would similarly be craftily dealt with, one-by-one by Sigrun. Skyr Gobbler enjoyed devouring all the Icelandic yoghurt – known as skyr – that he could find in the house. But at Sigrun’s farm he found yoghurt pots filled only with the paint used to whitewash the walls. No yoghurt gobbling for him. Sausage Swiper hid in the rafters waiting to steal smoked sausages. Sigrun dangled sleigh bells from the roof so this Yule Lad could not hide undiscovered. He made such a noise, in fact, that Pabbi woke from a deep sleep and cried out: “Who goes there!” Sausage Swiper left swiftly, no sausages swiped.
Window Peeper was especially creepy, peering in at windows, seeing what he could steal. He liked shiny objects, being drawn to them like a thieving magpie. He would only ever take one item per house. Even though Window Peeper was a stocky troll, used to carrying sacks of booty, he had a limit on how much weight he could bear. Sigrun narrowed down his options by locking away all the valuables she could lay her hands on in a solid wooden trunk. The padlock was massive and not for breaking. She would leave out just one shiny object: a large silver trophy her brother had won at a junior shepherd competition. She hammered a huge nail through the base of it and in to the trunk below. The cup, its handles and lid were not real silver: more like inexpensive pewter. Still, it was Gunnar’s pride and joy. Sigrun cared little for that in this moment.
When Window Peeper, his cap pulled down so his eyes were hardly visible, looked through the window and saw the dying fire in the hearth casting its golden glow on the prominently-placed trophy, he was aquiver with excitement. He dashed towards his glittering prize and put both his hands on the trophy, ready to raise it high like some victorious footballer at the end of a cup final. But the trophy would not come away from the trunk on which it sat, however hard he tried. He went scarlet red in the face trying to hoist the cup. And what sounds he made in the process: OOO-EEEH-AAAAH-NAAAR! And various vowel-dominated noises to that effect. He wrapped both arms around the trophy and wrestled with it some more until the red face turned a curious shade of purple. He tried so hard, a little wind squeaked from his bum. Parp!
As we now know, the Yule Lads are not the brightest of folk. Window Peeper carried on like this until he was exhausted and trumped out and finally had to concede defeat. He would be stealing no treasures from this farmhouse.
“That’s a very colourful necklace you have on there,” her father commented as Sigrun sat at the breakfast table, Viktor the dog nestled by her feet. “Who gave you that?” Sigrun stroked the beaded chain around her neck.
“Window Peeper,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“Another gift from the Yule Lads,” he said, fully aware his daughter had been rewarded each day of the Christmas build-up. “It seems like your little plots haven’t been working so well. Never mind, at least you’ve got some nice trinkets.”
There was a patronising tone in her father’s voice and Sigrun didn’t like it. Nor did she like the word “nice”. It always sounded way too twee for her and a teacher had once told her to find an alternative at all times: beautiful, lovely, excellent, pleasing, charming…but never nice.
“This necklace isn’t so much nice as rather beautiful,” said Sigrun.
“And Pabbi…” Sigrun began, before swallowing a mouthful of skyr.
“Yes, my lamb.” Sigrun liked it when Pabbi called her his lamb.
“My plans have worked just fine. Look.”
Sigrun pulled a note from the pocket of her jeans and handed it to her father. It read:
“What mischief is this? I believe it might be, you nailed down the cup to scupper me. I was angry at first but then took stock, thinking you must be a chip off the Yule Lads’ block.”
“That’s from Window Peeper,” declared Sigrun. “I’ve got notes from all the other Yule Lads in my jewellery case if you want to see them.”
Gunnar stormed into the room. Viktor barked his greeting and wagged his tail vigorously. Sigrun’s brother appeared fraught and flustered. “What I want to see is my trophy. It’s gone.”
“Well, last night was Window Peeper’s night. He must have taken it,” said Sigrun with a wry smile, before slurping down more of her breakfast yoghurt.
Gunnar turned immediately to his father. “This isn’t funny. Where’ve you put it Pabbi?”
“Oh, it’s got nothing to do with me,” declared Pabbi.
“But you know…the Yule Lads thing…you sort that kind of stuff out,” said Gunnar, lowering his voice as if to protect Sigrun from the truth. His sister wondered why he would suddenly go against character now and be sensitive or considerate when just last week he was openly telling her that Pabbi left her all the sweets and gifts, not the Yule Lads.
“You’d better read that note as well,” Sigrun suggested. Gunnar quickly obliged.
“That’s you as well, I take it?” Gunnar said to his father in an even more hushed tone. “Nailed the cup down…what does that mean?”
Before Pabbi could reply, Sigrun announced: “Your trophy is over there, on the trunk. I only borrowed it. And before you go mad at me, I’ve taken the nail out.”
“What nail?” cried Gunnar, dashing towards his prized possession.
“Sigrun?” said Pabbi, with a deep drawl and a fixed frown.
“Pabbi! Look what she’s done! There’s a hole in the bottom of it.”
“Be thankful you’ve still got it at all. If it wasn’t for me, Window Peeper would have stolen it.”
Gunnar stood gormlessly, peering into the trophy from the hole at its base.
“You’re welcome, by the way,” said Sigrun.
December 22: just three sleeps until Christmas Day.
“I’m keeping an eye on you my girl,” said Pabbi as he left to tend the cows.
‘My girl’ was never as good as ‘my lamb’, especially when delivered in that purposeful tone. Sigrun knew she couldn’t antagonise her father any more or he might not buy her new Christmas Eve clothes (as we shall soon learn, they were vital in Iceland at Christmas) or the karaoke machine she had asked for. But then again, he was heading to the cow shed and she was about to be left to her own devices. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, she thought. I’ll just be extra careful and not share any of the finer details with him from now on.
Door Sniffer was down from the mountains, the latest Yule Lad to tackle Sigrun’s house. His nose, being a gargantuan one, could sniff out baked goods for miles around. He was particularly partial to Laufabrauo, Iceland’s festive Leaf Bread made of wafer-like dough. At Christmas, there was lots around as it was tradition to make the bread as a family. Even Pabbi and Gunnar got involved – and they weren’t bakers of any repute. Sigrun didn’t mind using a few family flatbreads to tempt the pesky troll. Not that she had suddenly changed her ways and was being kind to one of the Yule Lads. Absolutely not. Rather, she was to cover the flatbread in chilli powder: hot, hot, hot chilli powder. When Door Sniffer came sniffing around these festive doors, he would smell the bread, be lured in and receive a snorting shock when he got too close. One sniff with those massive nostrils was all it took. Door Sniffer was soon sneezing – AAAAAAACHEW! – and spluttering and sneezing some more. It felt like the chilli powder was singeing his nose…like his nasal passages were being irritated by ten thousand nibbling ants. Now there was just one more lot of food to protect and one batch of goods to guard before Christmas Day dawned.
Smoked lamb was a tasty dish, a beloved family meal. Meat Hook was desperate to steal it all for himself on this the night of December 23rd. He had the most menacing appearance of all the Yule Lads, if only because he had a large metal meat hook in his right hand. That’s enough to scare most people. But Sigrun, as we’ve seen, is not most people. She was wary of him, but not scared of him.
Sigrun took down the Christmas fairy lights that had been twinkling away in her bedroom. There were four multi-coloured strands. She put the platter of smoked lamb on the kitchen table, covered it with a pan, placed a sign reading “Smoked Lamb – Do Not Touch” alongside it, before draping the lights over the pan. She plugged them in, admired her creation then went to bed.
When Meat Hook arrived, he was immediately drawn to the festive lights and read the sign. He lifted his hook and brought it down on the pan, aiming to remove it and gobble up the meat below. But all he succeeded in doing was tangling his hook in the wires of the lights. He tried again but became more entangled. He tried to remove the lights with his other hand and got in an even greater tangle. The lights suddenly switched to flashing mode and frantically blinked on an off. The more Meat Hook twisted and struggled, the more he was tied down in a wiry mire. Sigrun had calculated there was nothing more likely to tie you in knots than Christmas lights. Every year they were put away in a neat bundle. Every year they came out of the decorations box in a tangled mess. It was what Christmas lights did and always would. She knew they would ensnare Meat Hook and keep the smoked lamb away from his greedy clutches.
She smiled to imagine, as she woke on Christmas Eve morning, how a tangled and tied-up Meat Hook had still found a way to leave her treats in her shoe. There was a bracelet, a key-ring, pencils, stickers, chocolate and sweets in a bigger pile than normal, cascading from the coloured clog on to the windowsill. The now familiar note read: “Whose mischief was this? I believe it was you. Tied up and lit up, with no lamb to chew. I was angry at first but then took stock, thinking you must be a chip off the Yule Lads’ block.” Sigrun was triumphant if still a little bewildered why the Yule Lads continued to reward her.
Christmas Eve brought Sigrun more gifts: a new outfit from Pabbi. It’s good to see he doesn’t hold grudges, thought Sigrun, remembering how angry her father had been after nailing Gunnar’s trophy to the storage trunk just days ago. New clothes at Christmas in Iceland were not just desirable but absolutely essential. Folklore spoke of a large black Yule Cat that roamed near and far on Christmas Eve, devouring anyone in its path not wearing new clothes. Just one new garment would do to ward off the evil, but Sigrun was fortunate enough to have a new red jumper, new black skirt, new striped leggings and new black boots. The Yule Cat would have to search elsewhere for a tasty child to eat.
Christmas Eve also brought a visit from the last of the Yule Lads. His name: Candle Beggar. Unlike his brothers, who wore dark clothes to blend in with the shadows and the night, he was in a mustard tunic and hat and deep red trousers held up by a chunky leather belt. You might think Candle Beggar would plead for his Christmas goods. That’s what the word beggar suggests, after all. But he was like most of the other Yule Lads in that his stock in trade was stealing.
Candles were once made of tallow and, as such, could be eaten. And yes, this Yule Lad would eat them. They were once also an item of luxury: treasured givers of light in a country where dark prevailed for months through winter. Christmas Eve was a night for candles, above all other nights in the year. That’s why this was Candle Beggar’s chosen night to make mischief. He could no longer eat the candles and they were now less precious. But flickering candles always held – and will always hold – an illuminating magic all their own. The spoilsport Beggar was only too happy to extinguish them wherever he could. He would skulk from each house, quickly re-light them for his own selfish delight, then bask alone in the golden glow.
Sigrun crept into her father’s store shed. Ordinarily, she was not allowed in there. It had too many dangerous tools hanging from the rafters, like saws and axes. Standing on her tiptoes, she took a metal box from the shelf. Inside were fireworks, bought for New Year’s Eve celebrations. They could not be let off at the farm for fear of terrifying the animals, so Sigrun’s grandparents traditionally hosted the New Year festivities in town, close to the capital city of Rejkjavik. Fireworks at midnight had become a pivotal part of the celebrations and Pabbi always provided them. Icelanders spent hundreds of millions of Icelandic kronur on them each year, with much of the revenue going to help the nation’s search and rescue teams. Pabbi liked to offer his support. For more than one reason, then, Sigrun knew she was being extremely bad. Not only were fireworks never to be handled by children, but these had been bought to help a worthy cause, a charitable cause. But guilt would have to be pushed deep inside her stomach because there were certain fireworks she just had to take to finish off her Yule Lad mission. Their name: Roman Candles.
When Candle Beggar saw Sigrun’s farmhouse window lit by candles in lanterns, inside and out, he was excited about the prospect of finding many more to steal. In a box in prime position on the dining table, where the Advent candle was burning down to its last, lay the Roman Candle fireworks. The curious Yule Lad read the word “candle” immediately. The word “Roman” made him think they must be a special, almost exotic, variety. How international, how continental I am, he thought. He saw what he thought was a wick sticking out of the top and believed he had his hands on some very impressive candles indeed. He blew out all the candles he could find around the house and stashed them in his sack, along with the Roman Candles. He even took the inch-tall Advent candle, thinking himself to be terribly clever to claim such a prize. As we know, Yule Lads can by stupendously stupid. Candle Beggar had no idea this candle had served its festive purpose and was no use to anyone. He took it all the same. He hurriedly crossed the fields and was soon a distant figure.
The Yule Lads are not known for their patience and so it was only to be expected that Candle Beggar would soon put a match to his latest stash. First, the special candles, he thought. The Roman Candles. He lit one. The fuse fizzed. He was puzzled. Candles didn’t normally hiss like this. He thought it was a dud and angrily threw it to the ground. Suddenly, the firework burst into spectacular life. Showers of colourful sparks flew his way and ignited his sack. He could not drop it quickly enough. The other fireworks caught fire and exploded in a dizzying frenzy of colour, lighting up a sky of midnight blue and sending Candle Beggar running for the mountains. Sigrun peered from her window, hoping she might catch a glimpse of this impromptu lightshow. She was not disappointed. Indeed, Sigrun’s belly was positively aflame with excitement.
Sigrun’s name means “secret victory”: ‘sigr’ for victory, ‘run’ for secret. Her victory over the Yule Lads was her great secret to take with her into a deep and contented sleep as the majesty of Christmas Eve slipped away for another year. She would awake on Christmas morning to presents from Pabbi, her grandparents and maybe even her brother Gunnar. Santa Claus might have put in an appearance, too, but she didn’t want to be greedy. What was delivered overnight, however, was something Sigrun could never have imagined.
Sigrun’s eyes opened. She immediately felt strange. Something was wrong. It was still dark outside, but her room was lit by candles. Pabbi never allowed naked flames in her room. She’d be in huge bother if he saw them. Sigrun was aware of a ghastly pong. It was the smelliest kind of wee. Oh no! I can’t have wet the bed, she thought. In fact, it was the piece of foul-smelling shark meat placed just below her nostrils: the kind of hakarl she had used to make the first Yule Lad vomit. She tried to lift her head but struggled to do so because she had a heavy saucepan on it. As she moved, she felt a slimy feeling on her face and in her ears. It reminded her of the gunk that had fallen on Door Slammer. Sigrun lifted her right arm to take the pan from her head. But, when she grabbed the handle, she stayed stuck to it. Glue: just the kind she’d used to thwart Stubby and Bowl Licker.
Sigrun used her left arm to swing herself round and into an upright position on the edge of the bed. The shark meat flew from her top lip but, as her hand passed in front of her face, she was showered with chilli powder and had a sneezing fit that ended with the pan flying off her head and onto her stuffed bear. A toy never looked so green and slimy. The powder must have been put in her clenched fist by someone.
Sigrun’s feet searched for the comfortable furry slippers that usually lay beside her bed. Instead, one foot found a bucket of whitewash; the other found a bucket of dirty bath water. Both were freezing cold. She quickly stood up and stepped out of the buckets. The gunk dripped down her neck and down her nightdress. What a sight: Sigrun standing there, green and gunky, hand stuck to the pan, one foot white and wet, the other foot dirty and wet. She finally lifted the pan from her head – although it remained stuck to her hand – and took two soggy steps away from the buckets.
In the dim candlelight and with slime in her eyes, Sigrun could not see the fairy lights strung across from her bed to the drawers. They were not plugged in. They were not for decoration. They were there purely to trip up a young girl on Christmas morning. The lights were attached to a chain of sleigh-bells overhead. As Sigrun tripped, the bells were released and swung down to smack her on the nose with a crescendo of jingles. A full belly-flop of a fall followed. Sigrun’s face landed splat in a bowl of pepper paste, the kind she had used on Spoon Licker. Some of it went in her mouth and stung her tongue with its fiery heat.
Once Sigrun had clambered to her feet, she grabbed a corner of her bedspread and wiped her face. She could see more clearly now and took an angry kick at the bowl of paste, expecting it to fling across the room. It didn’t budge an inch. Sigrun let out a yelp as her toes throbbed from the painful impact. The bowl was nailed to the floor, just as she had nailed down the trophy to frustrate Window Peeper.
Sigrun recovered her composure enough to spy something that resembled her clog sitting on the windowsill, with what appeared to be a scroll of paper sticking out of it. When she got close, Sigrun saw her clog was covered in cat food – the kind she had used on Pot Scraper. She had to shove her free hand into the stinky stodge to remove the note. Her other hand was still stuck to the pan.
She somehow managed to unfurl the note and read: “What mischief is this? I believe it was we. The thirteen Yule Lads on some revenge-type spree. We liked all your tricks, so clever, mischievous. The way you planned out just how to deceive us. We couldn’t let Christmas dawn without giving them a go. We hope you like our gift to you, having reaped just what you sowed. There’s one last thing we ask: look out to the mountains. A special lightshow just for you, a giant fireworks fountain. Time now to enjoy Christmas Day with a heart so very glad, knowing we have made you a lifelong honorary Yule Lad.”
Sigrun was mesmerised by the fireworks way off in the distance. It reminded her of Iceland’s waterfalls, cascading glistening water down ragged cliffs. So captivated was she, in fact, that she forgot about her cold feet; her throbbing toes; her slimy hair; her peppery tongue; her sticky pan hand; her pulsating nose. Then she snapped back into the reality of what she’d just read. Sigrun, this pretty, bright, ten-year-old girl from a humble farm in Iceland, had been given the dubious honour of the title “Yule Lad”. This was a backfiring of her plan, big time.
Sigrun started to clean herself up, followed by her room. It took a while. There were still gifts to open underneath the tree, she remembered. It was Christmas morning after all. The Yule Lads wouldn’t have tinkered and tampered with those, would they? She saw the Christmas tree first as she entered the family room, glowing white lights and sparkling silver baubles twinkled their welcome. Sigrun turned to see her family already gathered on the giant sofas, warm mugs in hand. Even Gunnar had a smile on his face, but then he had just been handed his special jar of sweets by his grandparents and he knew there was money hidden inside. It was an annual tradition.
“Where have you been, sleepy head?” asked Pabbi. “We’ve been waiting for you until we dive into our gifts.”
“Sorry, Pabbi. I got a bit carried away with my presents from the Yule Lads.”
“Oh, what did they leave you this time?” asked her grandmother. “Let’s see.”
“That’s a bit more difficut to do than usual,” explained Sigrun. “They went a bit bigger this time.”
Her grandparents shot a quizzical look in Pabbi’s direction.
“It had nothing to with me,” said Pabbi, taking a gulp from his red and white Christmas mug.
“How did they ever fit big gifts in your clog?” asked grandfather, who had made the wooden shoe for Sigrun and didn’t like that it might not have served its proper purpose.
“I’ll explain later,” promised Sigrun, buying time. How she would explain away the buckets, the pan, the strings of lights, the bowl, the candles, the sleigh bells and various remnants of gunge she had failed to fully wipe clean was, in this instant, beyond her. And the fireworks show? Would anyone even believe her if she tried to explain that away?
“Presents!” she shouted, falling to her knees under the tree and diverting attention back to the here and now. The gift exchange began. It was the most special family time of the year.
Once all the tearing open of paper, untying of twine, the hugs and thanks and joyous frenzy were over, Sigrun rested her head on her father’s shoulder and sighed.
“That’s a big sigh for a little girl,” said Pabbi.
“I love Christmas,” she declared.
“And I love you,” he replied. Sigrun never felt more content.
“Next year,” said Sigrun, “I don’t think it’s such a bad idea if we leave out a few leftovers for the Yule Lads…maybe a candle or two extra on Christmas Eve, some bits of steak in the pan…that kind of thing.”
“Whatever you want, my lamb. Whatever you want.”
Copyright: Phil Jones 2018