The holiday season as we know it sparkles with magic and hope, literally and figuratively. However, cultural traditions and folklore around the world take advantage of the oppressive darkness of winter to cultivate and share frightening tales. Primarily English-speaking countries are familiar with stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by ghosts who show him the error of his ways and turn him toward a life embodying the Christmas spirit. Thanks to popular culture in recent years, unsettling holiday figures like those of Gryla (Iceland) and Krampus (Germany) have become more widely known. I find all kinds of holiday folklore fascinating, but there is one figure that does not get enough attention: the Yule Cat (a.k.a. Jólakötturinn).
Like any folklore, the story of the Yule Cat varies across generations and regions. Basically, the lore is this: If a child does not receive even a single item of new clothing for Christmas, the Yule Cat comes after them and eats them.
The Yule Cat is always depicted as a supernaturally large cat, usually larger than the average house. The belief is that the figure of a house cat was chosen because cats have always been common in Icelandic homes. When it comes to the role of receiving new clothing, this is believed to be an expression of the importance of textiles and clothing to Iceland’s economy (explained in the PBS special shared below). Most figures in Christmas folklore are an omniscient presence, and the Yule Cat is no exception. The Yule Cat looks into homes on Christmas night to check that every person (especially children) had received at least one new item of clothing. Since good behavior, obedience, and hard work are so strongly valued in Iceland’s culture and directly connected to the production of clothing, the Yule Cat myth emphasizes these factors as well.
Like any mythical figure (antagonistic or otherwise), the Yule Cat has a set of rules. Let’s say every single child receives at least one new item on clothing for Christmas. In that case, the Yule Cat would move on to consider the children who misbehaved or did not finish their chores during the year. So, not only does this cultural figure encourage economic stability through the upkeep of Iceland’s textile industry, but it also helps modify the behavior of children and uphold Iceland’s social and domestic values.
For more information on the Yule Cat, check out this entertaining and informative presentation from Dr. Emily Zarka on PBS:
I do not have any deep intentions in sharing this. I just love it. I love cats, I love horror stories, I love the holidays, and I love folklore, so…Yule Cat. Furthermore, this folklore and its continued impact on Icelandic culture demonstrates how horror stories are influenced by the culture around them, and vice-versa. This relationship between horror stories and the world(s) around them is one of the major reasons I started this blog.
What other lesser-known spooky folklore or traditions do you know of? Let me know in the comments below! I am always interested in learning more.
I hope the holiday season has been treating you all well. I have one more holiday post that will be shared in a few days, and then I will wrap up the year by sharing my favorite horror novels published in 2020! Stay tuned, stay spooky.
Until next time,
P.S. Be grateful for any new socks you receive this year