The hall is filled with laughter and the rich smells of roasted meats and freshly baked pies. A roaring fire keeps the winter cold at bay and the flicker of dozens of candles brighten the room, with bright red flowers and fragrant cedar boughs adorning the tables and fixtures.
A hint of movement through the window catches your attention. It is dark outside, and you cannot see much past the barn.
There isn’t a barn out there.
In the darkness, you see a pair of glowing yellow eyes staring back, creeping slowly closer.
Hope you’ve been good because the Yule Cat is here.
This monstrous feline is an Icelandic invention, described as a huge, building sized cat with glowing eyes. Every Christmas Eve, the Jólakötturinn prowls through villages, peering into windows and scoping out what everyone’s getting for Christmas. If new clothes are among the gifts, the cat moves along. If not, anyone who’s not getting new duds is getting eaten.
Clothes may seem like a weirdly specific thing for life and death stakes, but there’s a very clear logic at work.
In the fall months, villages needed to band together to finish preparations for the winter. One of the biggest jobs tended to be processing wool. In exchange for their labor, villagers would receive new garments. Getting clothes meant that you had worked hard and that your community was all the more likely to make it through another winter. No new clothes? Get ready to be cat food, you lazy bastard.
Generosity was another way to avoid the cat’s wrath. If you gifted clothes to your less fortunate neighbors, they received something needed to stay warm in the coldest months and you’d both be spared by the cat for another year.
The lesson that the Yule Cat teaches is clear: Be excellent to each other.
If you absolutely refuse to be a decent human being but still don’t want to be eaten, you could try facing off against the Yule Cat. It is huge and hungry for human flesh, but it’s not described as having any particular supernatural powers outside of devouring slackers. However! If you do decide to take on the Yule Cat, you should know that this feline is actually the family pet of a bunch of trolls, who will probably not be thrilled that you’re fighting their cat.
Gryla has been a fixture of Icelandic folklore for a long time, with earliest mentions hailing back to the 13th century. She seems to have developed as a personification of winter and the harshest elements, controlling the advance of the snow and darkness. She was originally a solo figure, with she and her family members beginning as independent myths that coalesced and became family over time. Santa never got the foothold in Iceland that he did in continental Europe, his role instead being slowly filled by existing myths.
Like Krampus, Gryla is out for bad kid blood, tracking down misbehaving children and stuffing them into a bag to be dragged back to her cave, then thrown into a cauldron and cooked into a stew. It’s said that Gryla has been married three times, and that she ate her second husband. Her current husband, Leppaludi, is intensely lazy, but somehow manages to avoid the wrath of both his wife and cat. He spends his days lying around a cave eating kid soup.
Their sons are much less menacing, though they also started out as child eaters. Over time the stories of the Yule Lads have softened, and they’ve become more like an advent calendar of pranks than boogeymen. The thirteen Yule Lads visit one day after the next leading up to Christmas Day, leaving candy or small presents for the good kids and rotting potatoes for the bad ones. They are named to match the pranks they play, which mostly involve licking kitchenware or stealing things—Spoon Licker, Door Slammer, Candle Beggar and so on.
So, if you decide to try your combat skills against the Yule Cat, know there are fifteen owners that may be ready to make you regret it. At very least, you’ll probably have to deal with two weeks of super obnoxious troll pranks.