From murky beginnings to a dark and glorious future
You all know the Yule cat
And that cat was huge indeed.
Everybody knew he hunted men
But didn’t care for mice.
(translation by Hallbergur Hallmundsson)
These lines are from the poem “Jólakötturinn” (“The Yule cat”) by the Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum. It first appeared in his book Jólin koma (“Christmas is Coming”), published in 1932 with many subsequent editions and even an English translation published in 2015. Jóhannes’ poems about the Yule lads, Grýla and Leppalúði, and the Yule cat, became an instant classic, defining Icelandic Christmas folklore for generations. Jóhannes’ verses fixed the number of Yule lads, their names and the order in which they come in the days leading up to Christmas; they established the ogres Grýla and Leppalúði as their parents and popularised the idea that Grýla had eventually died from hunger. His main source was Jón Árnason’s collection of folklore and folktales, Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og æfintýri (“Icelandic folk- and fairy tales”) first published in 1862 and republished by the Historical Society in 1929. The illustrations for the poems, made by Iceland’s first professional illustrator, Tryggvi Magnússon, also created an image of “old Icelandic Christmas”. Later, around 1970, Ingibjörg Þorbergs composed popular songs for Jóhannes’ poems. Taken together, the poems by Jóhannes, Tryggvi’s illustrations and Ingibjörg’s songs, conveyed an idealised Christmas, with a romantic rural flair, and a firm footing in Jón Árnason’s 19th century collection of folktales. They defined what was “traditionally Icelandic” in what was then (as now) a bourgeois festival with traditions copied from Denmark, Germany, the UK and US.
Since then the Yule cat has been a staple figure of the festivities in Iceland, found in Christmas decorations, illustrations, and school plays. Ingibjörg Þorbergs’ song about the cat was introduced to a new generation with Björk’s memorable interpretation on the Christmas record Hvít er borg og bær (“City and town are white”) in 1987. In the past few years this Icelandic Christmas monster has also been making the rounds on websites around the world; partly due to an article that appeared in the Icelandic English-language magazine Reykjavík Grapevine in 2008. Written by journalist Haukur S. Magnússon and illustrated by comic artist Hugleikur Dagsson, this article has been widely summarized and expanded in webzines like Smithsonian Magazine and The Lineup. While the Yule cat’s popularity has long been well established in Iceland, it seems to be finally getting the international recognition it deserves. But where does it really come from? And what makes it so appealing today? Looking at what research tells us, we find two conflicting theories about the origins of the Yule cat, put forward by two colleagues from the National Museum of Iceland.
A figure of speech come to life
Árni Björnsson is one of the best known folklorists living in Iceland today. His meticulous research into the Icelandic ritual calendar, including the origins of traditions connected with festivities and celebrations, was first published in two best-selling books in 1980 and 1981. His 800 page opus magnum, Saga daganna (“The History of Days”), was published in 2000. It is a vital resource for folklorists in Iceland. Like many folklorists of his generation, Björnsson has been a proponent of healthy skepticism when confronting folktales, folk beliefs and supposedly old customs. In a famous article in Skírnir published in 1996 he suggested that many elements of folk belief were simply folk fiction, stories meant to entertain rather than expressions of genuine belief.
In the case of the Yule cat, Björnsson notes the limited 19th century source material, which is almost entirely based on a paragraph in Jón Árnason’s collection of folktales. There it is called an “evil beast” (óvættur) that would either eat those who got no new clothes for Christmas, or steal their “Christmas bit” (jólarefur; an extra portion of food given to the residents of the farm). In a footnote Árnason mentions the figure of speech “to dress the cat” or “dress the Yule cat” which happened to those who didn’t get new clothes for Christmas. This footnote is based on one of his major sources, Jón Norðmann, while it is unclear where he gets the idea of the “evil beast”. The meaning may be simply that cats never change clothes. Sometimes the unfortunate ones were said to “do the cat” or be “taken by the cat” which leads Björnsson to conclude that the Yule cat was a figure of speech that Árnason may have misinterpreted as a monster. Björnsson was for many years the head of the folklife collection of the National University of Iceland and he used the questionnaires extensively in the History of Days. Many respondents in the collection were aware of this figure of speech, but were unsure as to its origin.
An old guise
While Björnsson’s conclusions listed above come from his History of Days, this idea was first put forward in his book Í jólaskapi (“In a Christmas Spirit”) published in 1983 and other works. His colleague at the National Museum of Iceland, archaeologist Guðmundur Ólafsson, criticised this argument in an article in the Icelandic Antiquarian Society Yearbook of 1989. Ólafsson finds parallels to the Yule cat in the variety of beings that traditionally accompany Saint Nicholas in many European countries. This is often proposed as the origin of the Scandinavian Christmas goat, or julebukk. The goat probably originally stood for the Devil making it a close relation of the Alpine Krampus. Just like goats, cats, especially black cats, have been associated with the Devil. Ólafsson finds a direct reference in the duivekater, a Dutch Christmas bread, and lussekatt, a Swedish pastry. Ólafsson’s hypothesis is that the Yule cat may have originated as one of Saint Nicholas’ followers in Catholic times, when the patron saint of travellers and fishermen was popular in Iceland, as demonstrated by the many churches dedicated to him.
Ólafsson also mentions the Icelandic cycle of folktales involving Sæmundur the learned (1056-1133), who was a priest of the church of Oddi (which was dedicated to Saint Nicholas), and his dealings with the Devil. These tales may have originally been about the saint and later transferred to the priest. A festival involving some form of performance where the saint arrives with a cat-like demon on a leash, might have been celebrated in Oddi in medieval times. The lack of older sources for the Yule cat does not, in itself, say much, as the sources for any kind of popular culture in the past tend to be limited.
The parallels between the Scandinavian Christmas goat and the Yule cat were noted by Terry Gunnell in his 1995 book The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia. An expert on medieval religious drama and mumming/guising traditions in Northern Europe, Gunnell has led the folkloristics department of the University of Iceland for many years. Elsewhere he mentions that figures of “devilish animals” appear in traditional performances around Christmas, where people dress up in animal skins with animal masks. Such costumes are mentioned in Icelandic sources about the vikivaki-dances held around Christmas (and at other times) until the 18th century, when the church started campaigning against them. Perhaps the Yule cat originated as a guise used in a traditional performance at Christmas.
Icelandic folklorist Hrefna S. Bjartmarsdóttir sums up these ideas about the origins of the Yule cat in her article from 2013 in the webzine Kreddur. She notes that there are many cat-like monsters in Icelandic folklore, although they are not associated with Christmas in particular, and that similar beings are also found in Scotland and Ireland. She mentions that the idea of not getting new clothes for Christmas being considered particularly bad is also known from old Scottish sources. The Yule cat and the associated beliefs may have travelled to Iceland from the Celtic world, via the Shetlands and Norway, in a manner similar to other better documented traditions.
A controversial Christmas decoration
Whatever its origins, after the publication of Jólin koma in 1932, the cat was firmly established as part of an “old Icelandic” pantheon of Christmas beings for generations of Icelanders. The author of this article remembers having learned Ingibjörg Þorbergs’ song as a child. He also remembers making a cat’s tail by cutting cardboard paper into a spiral that was appended to a cat-like paper figure to be hung up as a Christmas decoration, along with the popular garlands known as músastigi (from musetrappe in Danish). The Yule cat had in the 1970s become part of Christmas decorations in Icelandic homes, just like the Scandinavian Christmas goat which is now primarily known as a traditional decorative figure made of straw.
In the book Jólin koma, the cat appears in a separate poem and is not connected with the ogres Grýla and Leppalúði, or their sons, the Yule lads. It seems, however, that including it in the same book had the effect of associating the man-eating cat with the family of man-eating trolls. The cat appears as the pet of the Yule lads at least since the middle of the 20th century. But whereas the originally mischievous Yule lads were “reformed” as somewhat simpleminded country yokels handing out small presents at children’s festivals during the advent, the cat retained its evil nature and even started to make mischief as the Yule lads had done before — in addition to eating the poor. In one reinterpretation the cat is so unruly that only Stúfur, the smallest of the Yule lads (and every child’s favorite), is able to control it, using it as a steed to ride around the countryside. At the same time, in many modern illustrations Grýla has taken on the traditional image of the witch, appearing with a broomstick and a big pot, with her familiar, the Yule cat. Cooking and eating children is a common trait of witches, of course. Many artists have followed in the footsteps of Tryggvi Magnússon and visualised the figure of the Yule cat. Notable contemporary examples include Brian Pilkington and Hugleikur Dagsson. These, and other illustrations, have regularly made their appearance on websites dedicated to the darker side of Christmas. The cannibalistic Yule cat appeals to an adult audience willing to explore the many and varied folk horror aspects of the traditionally family-friendly holiday. There is also… well, cats. Some people would claim that their appeal needs no explanation at all.
In November 2018 a new Christmas decoration appeared in the centre of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. The city tends to be conventional when it comes to Christmas decorations, with the same light bulb series and garlands set up year after year. This time, however, the city council collaborated with a gardening centre to set up a 5-metre tall light-filled iron sculpture portraying the Yule cat, with a somewhat menacing appearance in the city’s central square. The cat sculpture got a lot of praise for style and workmanship, but also provoked criticism from the representative of the Socialist party in the city government, Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir. She posted a Facebook status on the occasion of its unveiling, decrying the lack of any mention of poverty and the plight of low-income families living in the city. The Yule cat eats children that do not get new clothes for Christmas, and that is exactly the situation in many of these families. Mörtudóttir’s status takes this as a clear example of how the city is willing to spend money on decorations that attract people to the commercial city center, while ignoring the situation of less fortunate citizens.
In her 2011 article in Museum Anthropology Review entitled “Traditional Culture: How Does It Work?”, American folklorist Dorothy Noyes notes that traditional folklore is designed “for continual recycling and repurposing as well as for ease of transmission”. We have seen how, in true folklore fashion, the Yule cat has taken on diverse forms, navigating different contexts, inspiring different practices, and attaching different meanings. It can be a figure of speech, a guising costume, a giant beast that threatens to eat the poor, a mischievous and unruly cat, a simple Christmas decoration, or a symbol of indifference to poverty. While the folk horror aspect of the cannibalistic Yule cat ensures its distribution on websites around the world, the beast demonstrates its versatility by adapting to new realities and political contexts in Iceland.
The Yule cat has even been featured in an episode of the PBS series Monstrum that we recommend watching: