Jólakötturinn, or the Yule Cat, is an Icelandic holiday monster. He is a giant cat who is said to eat children who have not finished their autumn wool-working chores, thereby failing to have been rewarded with new clothes by Christmas Eve.
“His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back arched up high,
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.”
—Jóhannes úr Kötlum, “Jólakötturinn” (Vignir Jónsson, trans.)
Though it is believed that the legend of Jólakötturinn dates from the Dark Ages, the first written mentions of this fearsome creature appeared only about 200 years ago. The pet of Icelandic mountain trolls Grýla, Leppalúði, and the “Yule Lads” (their 13 children), Jólakötturinn is a sort of bogey-beast, serving as a threat to indolent Icelandic children. Sometimes the Yule Cat is said to only eat up all of their holiday treats, rather than the children themselves. But as Jólakötturinn eats only once a year, we suspect the piparkökur (gingerbread) and Jólakaka (Christmas cake) are merely appetizers before the main course of child-flesh.
Over the centuries, the terrifying threat of Jólakötturinn, Grýla and her Yule Lads softened somewhat. A law was even passed in Iceland in 1746 prohibiting the frightening of children with tales of the ogrish family and their giant moggy. The Lads eventually became mischievous Santa-like figures who left rotten potatoes in the shoes of undeserving children, and Jólakötturinn began fading from lore. But eldritch holiday legends do not completely vanish from the popular imagination easily. As other pre-Christian Yule and Solstice monsters like Krampus from ancient Europe have begun to be discovered by the New World and have gained in popularity, Jólakötturinn is perhaps now better known than he was only a century ago.
The legend of Jólakötturinn can be seen as an entreaty to adults and children alike to embrace the holiday spirit of giving, suggesting that even the poorest members of the community must have their basic needs met during the bleak midwinter—not just to keep warm, but to avoid becoming sacrificial snacks. As Icelandic national treasure Björk sings in a song of the Yule Cat (by Ingibjörg Þorbergs, with lyrics from the poem by Jóhannes úr Kötlum), “his next visit would be in vain if next time everybody got something new to wear.”
The thought of being a meal for Jólakötturinn might just also make us more appreciative of Christmas gifts of clothing. So light the Yule log and pull on your new holiday socks and sweaters this weekend, or prepare to face the ravenous grimalkin Jólakötturinn!