International Santas: Iceland’s Mischievous Elves

Tiptoe. Tiptoe. It’s Christmas Eve, and a merry soul slides happily down the chimney. He relishes the smell of still-warm cookies, baked by tiny hands that very night. Quickly. Quietly. Through the hallway, around the corner, to the kitchen door!

A nose enters the kitchen first. A plump hand reaches out and grabs the note resting atop the cookie plate. Is it addressed to him? No! Alas, the delicious treats are meant for “Dearest Santa,” just like last year. Dejected, humbled Gáttaþefur, the door sniffer, retreats to another part of the house (but ultimately decides to gobble the cookies anyway, leaving none for Saint Nick, a newer addition to Icelandic holiday culture).

Iceland elves Christmas

Illustration by Lucy Burrows

Not the night-before-Christmas tale you’re familiar with? In Iceland, it’s the thirteen mischievous Yulemen who bring children gifts during the holidays, placing small trinkets (or potatoes for those girls and boys who’ve been bad) in their shoes. One is Door Sniffer, who takes advantage of kitchen cabinets and doors left ajar. His long nose aids him in truffling out the sweetest desserts.

The other twelve have names that also hint at their holiday habits: Pot Scraper delights in the burnt dregs of a dinner; Candle Beggar, Sausage Snatcher, and Meat Hook pilfer their respective household namesakes; and shy Window Peeper enjoys all the fun from a safe distance.

One elf arrives each night starting December 12, and they leave in the same order in which they arrived, the last one bidding goodbye on January 6.

In modern times, the thirteen Yulemen are inquisitive tricksters who imbue the holidays with a lively sense of fun. In past traditions, their visits weren’t quite as benign. Long ago, they were thirteen elf brothers who lived in the mountains with their troll parents, Gyrla and Leppaluoi. Each holiday season they might bring naughty children back to their mother’s hungry (and presumably enormous) cat, Jolakottur.

In Iceland, tales of the “hidden people,” like the thirteen Yulemen, have been part of the culture for centuries. Álfar, creatures we might call “elves,” are known for their fondness for interfering. Even in the last few decades elves have been informally implicated in a variety of construction mishaps, general accidents, and natural disasters in Iceland. The following clip from a National Geographic documentary shows the extent of elf mythology in modern Icelandic culture.

For more on elves and the tradition of the Yulemen, check out the following sources. Send the Yulemen or another international Santa to a friend using our Global Santa Sender on Facebook.


Bourie, Ric. “Every Yuleman has his weakness.” Boston Herald, December 25, 2005.

Eygló. “Ask Eygló.” Iceland Review, November 29, 2011. Accessed 2011.

Emling, Shelley. “Old World Grinch/Gryla, Yule Lads keep kids in line at Christmas Story of mean hag is part of Iceland’s holiday tradition.” Houston Chronicle, December 23, 2008.

Hafstein, Valdimar Tr. “The Elves’ Point of View: Cultural Identity in Contemporary Icelandic Elf-Tradition.” Fabula 41 (2000), 87-104.

Robinson, Janie. “Tricky trolls tell who’s naughty or nice.” Toronto Star, December 21, 2006.

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