Jolakotturinn or ‘The Yule Cat”
Cats often appear curled up contentedly on the Yuletide fireside scenes of some Christmas cards. However, Iceland’s’ Jolakotturinn is no sleepy fireside feline. According to folklore, the Yule Cat is a massive, vicious beast that hides amongst the ice and snow of the barren Christmas landscape- waiting for its prey.
Seeing the cat itself was bad enough. According to the poem, Jolakotturinn by Johannes ur Kotlum, one of Iceland’s’ best-loved poets:
“His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back arched up high.
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.”
Then there was what the cat did to his victims. These were the poor or specifically those without new clothes to wear on Christmas Eve. If they were lucky, the feline fiend just ate up all their food stores, leaving them without a Christmas feast. However, if they were unlucky, they became Christmas dinner for the cat.
Kotlum was drawing on the first written accounts of the legend, which date from the nineteenth century, and tradition that was undoubtedly much older. However, the fame of the Yule Cat seems to be down to Icelandic sheep farmers who used it as an incentive for their workers. The farmers were eager to have the autumn wool processed for Christmas. So they offered to reward any of their workers who worked overtime with new clothes. However, those who did not join in were branded as lazy- and told the story of the Jolakotturinn.
Whether or not the adult workers fell for the threat of the Yule cat is debatable. The lure of new clothes probably ensured most joined in with the extra work. However, pretty soon parents were finding Jolakotturinn a useful threat to use against children unwilling to do their chores. The cat would know they had been lazy, parents told their laid-back offspring, because they would not be given any new clothes for Christmas.
The threat seems to have worked. One Icelandic woman, in an oral history, recalled how “We were lazy doing this chore. Then we were reminded of the Yule Cat. We thought that was some terrible beast and the last thing we wanted was to be one of his offers”.