The Yule Cat – A New Christmas Tradition?

While traditional Christmas folklore characters are typically friendly—just think of the many incarnations of St Nicolas—in Iceland there’s a character that sounds quite terrifying.

The Yule Cat (Jólakötturin) is a huge, vicious creature that lurks in the snowy countryside. Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat at all. In fact, he might eat you! This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It’s no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

Although it is difficult to determine exactly when the legend of the the Yule Cat began, it was popularized in 19th and early 20th century Iceland as a way of enhancing productivity among the working class. According to the National Museum of Iceland, “It is likely that the Yule Cat myth was originally designed to urge farm workers to perform well prior to Christmas… Those who did not… [ended] up in the Yule Cat.” It’s kind of like A Garfield Christmas meets The Walking Dead.

In the video below, a common narrative of the Yule Cat known as Jólakötturinn is outlined in several text slides, and sung to life by Iceland’s very own golden soul child, Björk. In the somewhat haunting music video, the Yule Cat is clearly made out to be one nasty nemesis.

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