Drawing of the Yule Cat, a cat in Icelandic mythology
Cats and Magic,  Cats in Myth,  Fairytale cats

Iceland’s Yule Cat pounces on people who lack a new scarf

The legend of a cat who enforces the winter dress code has leapt beyond Iceland’s borders.

A lot of people are now familiar with Krampus, a goat-like demon that comes around during the holiday season to punish bad children in Central Europe. But in Iceland, the Yule Cat – known as Jólakötturinn in Icelandic – comes around to actually eat people who did not receive new clothes before Christmas Eve. And this isn’t some little angry kitten. Over the years and various retellings, the Yule Cat evolved into an all-black monster with sharp claws and thorn-like whiskers. It can tower as big as a giant or even a house.

A less harsh version is that the oversized and quite grumpy cat just eats all of that person’s extra portion of holiday food. Having no decent warm clothes in the winter in Iceland isn’t really ideal and losing your treats just adds insult to injury. So perhaps the best course of action would be to appease the Yule Cat before events get out of paw.

The Yule Cat lays in wait by snowy roads looking for people in shabby clothes to pass by and then pounces. If that doesn’t work, the cat is known to sneak up and look through windows to do a quick OOTD (outfit of the day) check on unsuspecting kids. If the ’fit lacks new items, then the cat takes action.

The Yule Cat, old watercolour illustration
The Yule Cat. Source unknown but believed to be public domain
Grýla and a Yule Lad. Yule Cat
Grýla and a Yule Lad at Keflavík International Airport. Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The origins are a bit murky, as is the case with many folk tales. The earliest written reference is a brief mention in an 1862 collection of stories by Jón Árnason. This one sentence in an account of Yuletime traditions is a bit ambiguous, stating the Yule Cat “takes all” if no new clothing is detected. People debate whether this means eating the person or just taking the old clothes. But the first option makes for a scarier story to be told by the burning Yule log. The reference is so fleeting that it doesn’t even appear in the English translation of the book.

The idea was more or less forgotten, at least in literature, until a 1932 poem by Jóhannes úr Kötlum in a Christmas anthology. The poem “Jólakötturinn” reminded people that a huge and hungry cat stalked people on Christmas Eve.
From there, the concept took off. The Yule Cat soon merged into other holiday traditions as the pet of the nasty troll Grýla, her slothful husband Leppalúði and their 13 sons known as the Yule Lads.

Jón Árnason. Wikimedia commons, public domain
Jón Árnason. Wikimedia commons, public domain
Jóhannes úr Kötlum
Jóhannes úr Kötlum. Wikimedia commons, public domain

The story found international fame due to the internet, as Icelandic stories became widely accessible worldwide and there was no way to stop a good cat story from traveling. Icelandic singer Björk in 1987 recorded a song called “Jólakötturinn” based on the poem as well, but it is one of her more obscure efforts.

More recently, a short horror film called Yule Cat shows the title character attacking a rural house. The film’s tag line is: He doesn’t care if you are naughty or mice. It made the rounds of film festivals in 2022 and 2023.

The Swedish filmmakers wanted to bring the tale to a wider audience. “In Sweden we have the Yule Goat, closely resembling Krampus, but an even more obscure being inhabits Iceland, one we believe hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention in entertainment. We wanted to change that with this film. The Yule Cat of Iceland is a horrific large feline beast who hunts men rather than mice and actively stalk the ones who are already poor and on their knees. Yes, we know, Icelandic folklore is bleak. We love it,” they said.

Sociologists speculate that the concept of the Yule Cat was a way of making sure all the farm work was completed before Christmas. Iceland was a largely rural society, with sheep’s wool as a large part of the economy.

Farm workers were encouraged to finish processing the season’s wool before the holiday break, and the farm owners would then reward them with a woolen scarf or similar item made from the wool they had just turned in. The threat of the evil man-eating cat who served as an enforcer was an incentive to get the farm work done.

While many societies have the idea of a companion to Santa who punishes bad children, Iceland’s Yule Cat stands alone as a bizarre sort of holiday fashion police. In modern Iceland, though, the Yule Cat is still taken seriously. Most people get at least one piece of warm clothing from someone ahead of Christmas. Black cats in general have a bad reputation worldwide, but that is not always the case.

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