In Icelandic folklore, there’s a creature called Jólakötturinn. Jólakötturinn translates to “Yule Cat” and is a giant cat who lives up in the mountains. Jólakötturinn is a pet of a giantess troll named Grýla, who also has a taste for children. It is said that the Yule Cat would come down from the mountains and devour people who did not have any new clothes to wear on Christmas Day.
That sounds super harsh, right? Why would a giant monstrous cat eat people for not having new clothing on Christmas Day? Most likely it’s due to sheep farmers. The story was used as an incentive to ensure that the farmer’s workers got their work done before winter approached. The workers would be rewarded on Christmas Day with clothing made from the wool harvest as a thank you for their help. So those who didn’t get clothing were those who didn’t pull their weight. Another idea is that it was an incentive for people to work hard during the year so that they had money to buy gifts for their loved ones.
Children also had to earn their new Christmas clothing. For being well-behaved and helping out through the year they’d be gifted new clothing on Christmas along with other treats. Some traditions had people giving offerings to the Yule Cat who would eat its offerings outside and move house to house peering into the windows to see if new clothing were among their holiday gifts. If not the Yule Cat would swoop in on the children of the household and eat them before moving on.
Other theories propose that it was a tradition to promote altruism. This ensured that the less-fortunate didn’t go without new clothing as the generosity of gifting those with less would provide protection for them from Jólakötturinn.
Here’s Icelandic artist Björk singing a folk song about the Jólakötturinn (along with a translation) back in 1987. The song is a poem from the early 20th-century poem by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, who was known for collecting Icelandic Christmas lore around which became the official version of the folklore over time.
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