Jólakötturinn—The Icelandic Christmas Cat

Christmas is a time for family, gratitude, traditional food, and, in most cases, threats and/or bribes to elicit good behavior. Children spend the weeks leading up to Christmas knowing that if they don’t do as they’re told, the mythical being responsible for bringing them presents (or his/her cronies) will leave a disappointing or even terrifying surprise instead.

But what if the children receive perfectly lovely, practical gifts like socks and new school clothes, but they hate them? Iceland has the answer. Simply explain to the children that anyone who doesn’t receive clothing for Christmas will be hunted down and eaten by the bloodthirsty Jólakötturinn (Yule Cat). Suddenly those socks are the greatest present they’ve ever received. So on the Fifth Day of Imported Christmas, we gave each other clothes to appease the Icelandic Yule Cat.

The Jólakötturinn was made famous in the 1930s by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, a beloved Icelandic poet who wrote of the enormous Christmas Cat, “People know not where he came from / Nor to what place he went.” Written references to this terrifying cat go back as far as the 18th century, though some speculate the folktale originated sometime in the Middle Ages.

As for why the cat is so clothing-obsessed, it may have something to do with using the beast to motivate laborers to finish their work in order to receive their Christmas clothes. More recently, Icelandic children have been told that only those who finish all their chores will earn new clothing and escape the wrath of the Yule Cat.

We didn’t want to be eaten, so we made sure our clothing gifts were taken care of early in the season (overalls for Gordon, advent calendar socks for me). If our much smaller black cat is any indication, the clothing met with feline approval.

Interested in learning about more international Christmas traditions? Follow our 12 Days of Imported Christmas:

Twelve Days of Imported Christmas

  1. The First Day: Christmas-Stuffed Turkey Piñata and Other Season-Starting Traditions
  2. The Second Day: Mari Lwyd—Wales’ Rhyming Horse Skull Puppet
  3. The Third Day: Christingle—England’s Citrus Candlestick
  4. The Fourth Day: Spanish Christmas Tapas
  5. The Fifth Day: Jólakötturinn—The Icelandic Christmas Cat
  6. The Sixth Day: Churchkhela—Georgia’s Christmas Candle Treat
  7. The Seventh Day: Christkindlmarkt—Germany’s Christmas Markets

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