It wasn’t too long ago when the character of Krampus – the “Bad Cop” to jolly old Saint Nicholas who literally dragged naughty kids to hell in a handbasket – suddenly evolved from a Germanic folk tradition into a worldwide pop-culture icon, especially among the horror community. The horned, forked-tailed Yuletide demon is a natural fit for anyone who wants to keep the Halloween spirit going through the Holiday season… but he’s just one of many terrifying folkloric creatures stalking children on cold December nights.
If you think Krampus just isn’t scary enough to give today’s savvy kids nightmares, you might want to consider the Icelandic monster Jólakötturinn – otherwise known as the “Yule Cat.”
As if your own pet feline didn’t already have you paranoid enough, just gazing mischievously at the shiny (and breakable) objects adorning your Christmas tree, you’ll probably be sleeping with one eye open after learning about this mythical menace.
The pet of monstrous cave-dwelling trolls Gryla and Leppaludi and their 13 strange children known as the “Yule Lads,” Jólakötturinn is said to stand taller than a house, stalking the night and peeking in every home’s windows to see what children are getting for Christmas.
Why does this matter to the Yule Cat, you ask? We’ll get to that in a second.
First of all, most of these ancient folk tales work double-duty as macabre lessons, teaching children the consequences of misbehaving: if you’ve been good this year, St. Nick will reward you with gifts, and if you’ve been bad… well, you can figure it out. While “bad” covers a wide range of misbehavior in Santa’s book, Jólakötturinn has more specialized tastes: he only targets children who did not receive new clothes for Christmas.
We know that seems a bit unfair on the surface… but before you think this enormous beast is being cruel to children whose parents can’t afford to buy or make them new socks, you should know that ancient Icelandic tradition involves rewarding children who complete their household chores with new clothes for the coming year. Lazy kids were sometimes denied this reward – and to make matters worse, they would then be stalked and eaten in their sleep by the hungry Jólakötturinn – or so the legend goes.
According to myth, the cat monster does not spare the children of poor families; it would seem he doesn’t have a speck of sympathy for anyone unfortunate enough to continue wearing hand-me-downs over the holidays.
There may still be a genuine moral behind the cat’s motives, however: tradition also encourages more well-to-do families to gift their less fortunate friends and neighbors with new clothes of their own, which would in turn spare these needy families’ children the wrath of Jólakötturinn. Another theory among experts in Icelandic folklore claims that fear of the Yule Cat may also have motivated sheep farmers to collect and process their wool before the harsh Icelandic Winter sets in.
We’ll leave you with a delightful little poem – written in the 1930s by Icelandic writer and public figure Jóhannes úr Kötlum – recounting the legend of Jólakötturinn, his gigantic and frightening appearance, and the evil omens signified by his presence:
You all know the Yule Cat
And that Cat was huge indeed.
People didn’t know where he came from
Or where he went.
He opened his glaring eyes wide,
The two of them glowing bright.
It took a really brave man
To look straight into them.
His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back arched up high.
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.
He gave a wave of his strong tail,
He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.
Sometimes up in the valley,
Sometimes down by the shore.
He roamed at large, hungry and evil
In the freezing Yule snow.
In every home
People shuddered at his name.
If one heard a pitiful “meow”
Something evil would happen soon.
Everybody knew he hunted men
But didn’t care for mice.
He picked on the very poor
That no new garments got
For Yule – who toiled
And lived in dire need.
From them he took in one fell swoop
Their whole Yule dinner
Always eating it himself
If he possibly could.
Hence it was that the women
At their spinning wheels sat
Spinning a colorful thread
For a frock or a little sock.
Because you mustn’t let the Cat
Get hold of the little children.
They had to get something new to wear
From the grownups each year.
And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve
And the Cat peered in,
The little children stood rosy and proud
All dressed up in their new clothes.
Some had gotten an apron
And some had gotten shoes
Or something that was needed
– That was all it took.
For all who got something new to wear
Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp
He then gave an awful hiss
But went on his way.
Whether he still exists I do not know.
But his visit would be in vain
If next time everybody
Got something new to wear.
Now you might be thinking of helping
Where help is needed most.
Perhaps you’ll find some children
That have nothing at all.
Perhaps searching for those
That live in a lightless world
Will give you a happy day
And a Merry, Merry Yule.