yule cat iceland: Black cat with mouth open

This is the legend of Jólakötturinn, the evil Christmas cat!

© Shutterstock

In Iceland, the Yule cat Jólakötturinn eats disobedient children

By Emilie Heyl Content Writer

Updated on the

She is hunchbacked, huge, moth-eaten, with hair like needles, and eats children. The legend of the Yule cat is very different from our Christmas time stories!

Different countries, different customs. While we are waiting for Santa Claus to come in December, it is a completely different character that is on its way to Iceland.

In Iceland, Christmas traditions are still well preserved. Christmas starts four weeks before the 24th and ends thirteen days later, on January 6th. 

The legend of the Jólakötturinn

The evil Christmas cat Jólakötturinn belongs to a troll witch called Grýla. Grýla's sons are the Jólasveinar, or the thirteen Yule lads, dwarves who originally didn't bring presents but would steal or joke around. Much like her mum and siblings, the Yule cat is a dark character in Icelandic folklore. Children in Iceland fear her, because she has an appetite for naughty children...

statue of the yule cat of iceland
The statue of the Yule cat in the capital of Iceland
© Shutterstock

Jólakötturinn isn’t your typical kitten! The black cat is as tall as the tallest houses, prowls on Christmas night and looks through the window to see what presents the kids have received. If they have gotten new clothes for Christmas, then the big cat moves along. But if the child didn’t receive new clothes and especially a new pair of socks, then the Yule Cat will eat the child’s dinner before moving on to the main course: the child herself!

But why does the child have to receive a new pair of socks to avoid this awful condemnation?

The meaning of the Yule cat in Iceland traditions

The story of the Jólakötturinn cat dates back to the 19th century. It became part of the classic Icelandic folklore when it was published by author Jóhannes úr Kötlum in his poetry collection, Jólin koma, or "Christmas is Coming". Originally, the story is thought to have been written to enforce good behaviour.

According to the story, when someone finishes their chores before Christmas, they would get new clothes as a reward. Therefore, new clothing was a sign that someone had not been lazy. Meanwhile, lazy or disobedient children who didn’t get their work done would be punished and would have to face the monstrous Jólakötturinn cat.

The story of the Jólakötturinn should therefore be understood as an invitation to be hardworking and to prepare for the winter in good time.

Gleðileg jól! (This means Merry Christmas in Icelandic).

More advice on...

What did you think of this advice article?

Thanks for your feedback !

Thanks for your feedback !

1 person found this advice article helpful.

Frequently asked questions

Is Yule cat good or bad?

Leave a comment
Connect to comment
Want to share this article?