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A common reaction from foreigners who hear the story of the Yule Cat for the first time is disbelief: It just sounds too absurd to be real! A giant monstrous cat which eats children who don't get new clothes for Christmas? What kind of evil, sadistic tradition is that? It just can't be real!
But, no: It is very real. And every Icelander, young or old, knows this story.
The many horrible Christmas Spirits
The Yule Cat is one of the many strange spirits and monsters of Christmas. A giant cat which shows up during Christmas to eat children who don‘t get any new pieces of clothing for the holidays!
The origins of the Yule Cat are more mysterious than those of the Yule Lads or their mother, the ogress Grýla, all of whom are clearly traditional trolls or mythical spirits living in mountains and uninhabited areas. It's development over time, also differs from that of the other Christmas creatures.
Some have softened over the years, not the Yule Cat
Traditionally the Yule Lads were a nuisance at best, and a serious threat at worst: They broke into people's homes to steal food and valuables, harass the livestock or generally causing a mayhem. Today the Yule Lads have morphed into friendly old men who give little kids treats. The Yule Lad, however, still eats children.
The earliest written records of the Yule Cat date back to the 19th century, but the practice is believed to be much older. The Yule Cat seems to be closely related to Scandinavian beliefs in the Yule Goat, which is believed to stretch back to pagan and even pre-historic times. A popular theory of the Yule Goat is that it was originally connected to worship of Thor.
Some believe the Yule Cat is a local variant on the goat. One reason the Yule Goat seems to have disappeared in Iceland could be the power of the Medieval Church, but another factor might have been that while the Viking settlers had goats, the goat population was never large and had largely disappeared by the 19th century when popular myths and traditions were being collected by ethnographers.
Makes getting socks for Christmas into a good thing!
According to the story Icelandic kids are still told today the Yule Cat will snatch and eat children who don’t get new clothing for Christmas. The Cat would show up early Christmas morning or the night after Christmas day.
While the myth can be useful to convince kids that the sweater from grandma is just a good a gift as the toy they might have wished for ("Hey: Grandma saved you from being eaten by the Yule Cat: You owe this sweater your life!") the origins of the myth must be sought in the rural economy of pre-industrial agrarian Iceland.
This belief is probably connected to the tradition of farm hands getting a piece of clothing for the holidays, a kind of Christmas Bonus. Anyone who didn't get a Christmas Bonus was a victim of the Yule Cat. Another theory which has been offered is that the cat served as a threat to encourage everyone to finish all weaving and knitting before the holidays: If the processing of the wool, the knitting and weaving wasn't finished before Christmas someone would face the horrible fate of being eaten by a terrifying giant cat!
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