Cat Lore

The Jólakötturinn


At Christmas time in Iceland, families give warm clothing to each member of their household.

According to legend, there is a frightening Christmas Cat who stalks the snowy countryside and gobbles up anyone not equipped for the cold and wintery weather.

yule cat 3

Families in Iceland work together to ensure nobody will “go to the Christmas Cat”.

This terrifying Christmas Cat is also referred to as the Yule Cat.

The idea is that families gift each other new and warm clothes for the winter, and make the Yule cat an offering of some warm weather gear. If not, the Yule cat will gobble you up like some fishy treats.

The message is passed down to children, who are taught to work hard, and if they don’t/are bad children – the Christmas Cat will eat them.

Terrifying… but effective!

There is a beloved poem about the Yule Cat by Johannes ur Kotlum which describes the huge cat’s sharp teeth and glaring yellow eyes along with the belief that one must work hard for Christmas to avoid being punished by the Yule Cat.

Here’s the whole poem:

You all know the Yule Cat

And that Cat was huge indeed.

People didn’t know where he came from

Or where he went.

He opened his glaring eyes wide,

The two of them glowing bright.

It took a really brave man

To look straight into them.

yule cat 1

His whiskers, sharp as bristles,

His back arched up high.

And the claws of his hairy paws

Were a terrible sight.

He gave a wave of his strong tail,

He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.

Sometimes up in the valley,

Sometimes down by the shore.

He roamed at large, hungry and evil

In the freezing Yule snow.

In every home

People shuddered at his name.

If one heard a pitiful “meow”

Something evil would happen soon.

Everybody knew he hunted men

But didn’t care for mice.

He picked on the very poor

That no new garments got

For Yule – who toiled

And lived in dire need.

From them he took in one fell swoop

Their whole Yule dinner

Always eating it himself

If he possibly could.

Hence it was that the women

At their spinning wheels sat

Spinning a colorful thread

For a frock or a little sock.

Because you mustn’t let the Cat

Get hold of the little children.

They had to get something new to wear

From the grownups each year.

And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve

And the Cat peered in,

The little children stood rosy and proud

All dressed up in their new clothes.

Some had gotten an apron

And some had gotten shoes

Or something that was needed

– That was all it took.

For all who got something new to wear

Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp

He then gave an awful hiss

But went on his way.

Whether he still exists I do not know.

But his visit would be in vain

If next time everybody

Got something new to wear.

Now you might be thinking of helping

Where help is needed most.

Perhaps you’ll find some children

That have nothing at all.

Perhaps searching for those

That live in a lightless world

Will give you a happy day

And a Merry, Merry Yule.


Iceland is no stranger to frightening folklore. Perhaps living through days of prolonged darkness will make any culture believe in trolls and ogres. In fact, there is another Icelandic tradition regarding the trickster Yule Lads and their mother Gryla who kidnaps, cooks, and eats disobedient kids. In that legend, Gryla is the Yule Cat’s owner as well. It’s one big, baby-eating family for Icelandic Christmas!