These days life itself can be a little overwhelming and now, particularly at this time of year (I can’t believe I’m saying this), Christmas can be a little much. All the incessant cheerful music and sparkly decorations and gooey commercials can sometimes leave you feeling like you have been beaten over the head with a candy cane. So, to cleanse your palate of the sugar high let us take a glimpse into the not-so-sweet side of Christmas legends and lore.
We begin right here within Canada. Although we may not hold the same kind of ancient history as other parts of the world we can look back to our Nation’s roots and thank the Inuit for this first contribution of Christmas creepiness.
It is the eve of Old Christmas day in Labrador, January 6th. Nalujuk Night. It’s very cold and dark and the community gathers anxiously to await the arrival of The Nalujuk. A Nalujuk or many Nalujuit, arrive from the eastern coast on the sea ice carrying crude handmade weapons, are clad from head to toe in traditional furs and seal skin boots, and their faces are covered with masks made from animals skins, cloth, or more modernly – store bought masks. Through the town they chase the children, moving quickly and quietly on snow covered streets in their seal skin boots. Shrieks of terror, singing and laughter echo through the cold of the night as children, once caught by the Nalujuk, must sing a song to be freed and are often given candy to quash the trauma .
Well that sounds like fun and not terrifying at all.
Singing is an integral part of our Christmas traditions. We have carollers and choirs belting out the same joyful tunes we know and love. Songs of peace, joy, and happiness. It is said music will calm even the savage beast but will it be enough to make a zombie horse leave your house? Next time we pop on over to Wales and see what the Welsh are up to – and *spoiler* it’s weird.
I could blame a lot of my forgetfulness on the fact that my brain is overloaded with lyrics of songs, especially Christmas carols. I know them all. Church hymns, crooner ballads, and even all the gibberish I made up to Feliz Navidad which I’m sure makes a complete mockery of the Spanish language. Songs are a large part of the Christmas culture, we rejoice through song but what if one night during the holiday season you answer a knock at your door and find yourself, not serenaded by a group of jolly carollers in period garb, but instead you come face to face with a bedazzled horse’s skull shrouded in a bed sheet singing to be let into your house for a little nosh and to drink your booze?
Meet Mari Lwyd.
Mari Lwyd is an old folk custom originating from South Wales with the first records dating back to 1800s. During the time between Christmas and New Year’s in the manner of “wassailing”, the tradition of going door to door singing Christmas carols in exchange for drinks and snacks, a decorated horse’s skull affixed atop a stick, held by a some lucky individual that is covered with a sheet or tarp to give an air of vintage village ghost, would arrive at your doorstep looking for a challenge. In a battle of cleverness through song and rhymes the home owners must counter each rap the zombie horse throws down. In the event that the homeowner can no longer fend off entry to the horse through rhyme they must allow the horse and all it’s handlers to enter and provide them with alcohol and food. As one would assume, allowing a horse to enter your abode, zombie or otherwise, creates it’s own veritable chaos by frightening children and surely adults as well.
Today is December 21 – the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It is also the start of Yule. In pagan history the winter solstice is the night when the veil between the living and dead is at it’s thinnest and therefore a prime opportunity for mischievous spirits to enter your home. To keep evil spirits at bay and invite the return of the sun the Yule Log was lit and burned through this, the longest of nights.
Beginning on December 12 and for the next 13 nights leading up to Christmas, kids in Iceland have the opportunity to cash in on some tasty treats if they’re good little boys and girls. If not? Well, the could end up being boiled alive and eaten by an ogress named Gryla.
And if you thought the Elf on the Shelf was creepy, meet her children – the Yule Lads. The Yule lads are festive yet freaky little sprites that reward well behaved children each night with treats in one of their shoes that they place on the windowsill before going to bed. If the child happens to wake up with a rotting potato in their shoe then that’s an indication that some self reflection could be required. Allowing these guys into your home invites it’s own kind of special festive hell if you consider their names, which are pretty self explanatory to their character traits.
- GLUGGAGÆGIR – Window Peeper: peeps in windows.
- ÞVÖRUSLEIKIR – Spoon Licker: licks your spoons – gross.
- GÁTTAÞEFUR – Doorway Sniffer: has a big nose apparently.
- BJÚGNAKRÆKIR – Sausage Swiper: steals your sausages and hot dogs. Lock down your Top Dogs- those aren’t cheap!
- POTTASLEIKIR – Pot Scraper: preemptive washing. Thank you little feller.
- GILJAGAUR – Gully Gawk: hangs out in gullies (?) waiting to scare passers-by. Not nice.
- SKYRGÁMUR – Skyr Gobbler: eater of your favourite high protein yogurt. Hands off!
- KERTASNÍKIR Candle Beggar: back in the day he would eat candles because they were made of fat. Now I suppose he may favour soy based products over the Yankee variety.
- STÚFUR – Stubby: the runt of the litter, but also has the biggest appetite favouring the crust from pans. Ok.
- KJÖTKRÓKUR – Meat Hook: yikes! He has the scariest name but only steals your smoked lamb. Whew.
- HURÐASKELLIR – Door Slammer: you guessed it, he slams doors.
- ASKASLEIKIR – Bowl Licker: again with the licking.
- STEKKJASTAUR – Sheep-Cote Clod: the first of the lads to visit the village. He likes to tease your sheep and I’m assuming when sheep may be lacking, dogs or cats might work too.
It would seem that these visitors are generally harmless considering the family they come from. Ogres as parents that eat children but apparently not their own, and like most families, they also have a family pet. A big (I mean BIG) black cat with the catchy name of JÓLAKÖTTURINN, otherwise known as Yule Cat.
This is my favourite Yule character. He’s a giant black cat that roams the countryside looking for people that did not get new clothes for Christmas and he eats them.
Simple and to the point.
But why, you may ask. The tradition started as one last push for workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. The ones who worked this overtime would be rewarded by their employer with new clothes and those lazy guys that did not help got nothing and were definitely now cat food.
There really is no better incentive than threat of a horrible death by giant Icelandic cat.
Iceland is full of weird and wonderful traditions and lore, and much of it about killing and eating people. The Elf on the Shelf doesn’t seem like that bad of an idea now does it?