Jólakötturinn, the Christmas cat of Iceland

December 13, 2012 by Robyn DeAngelis · Leave a Comment
Filed under: History, Holidays 

Since the first days of the Norse settlement in Iceland, winter time was when wool was spun and new clothes were made. It became a tradition to receive new clothes each Christmas.

In Iceland, children who finished their chores received a piece of clothing for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not. If a child did not receive any new clothes for Christmas, he/she was in risk of being eaten by the dreaded Jólakötturinn, the evil Yule cat. The origins of the story are unclear but we know that this myth predates Christianity. A famous poem about the cat by Iceland’s own Jóhannes úr Kötlum (as seen below) accurately stated that “no one knows where he’s from or where he goes”.

Jólakötturinn is thought to have been the pet of the evil troll Grýla, her husband, Leppalúði and the thirteen Yule-lads, who all lived in a mountain top cave. This is no sweet, cuddly, playful kitten. Jólakötturinn is always portrayed as an enormous black cat, with sharp whispers, long claws and fang-like teeth. His one and only goal is to eat you if you do not receive a piece of new clothing for Christmas. However, past interpretations state that he will not eat you but will eat all your food instead.

Like the Krampus of Eastern Europe, Jólakötturinn is yet another Christmas villain, looking to punish children on Christmas Day. This makes the idea of getting coal in your stocking much more palatable!

The Yule Cat by Jóhannes úr Kötlum

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.