The History of the Icelandic Yule Cat

What could possibly make the Christmas season better in my opinion? Cats, of course! So cue the Yule Cat or Jólakötturinn, a giant cat from Nordic folklore that prowls the snowy countryside during yuletide and snatches up unsuspecting children who haven’t received new clothes that year!

This seemed like the perfect story to bring back one of my favorite Christmas story traditions: the doodle storytime video!

I tell (and illustrate) the basic story in the video, but in case you’re fascinated by tale and wanted to dig a little deeper, I thought I’d share some of the resources I found when researching it myself!

If you’re looking for an entertaining but well-researched backstory on the tale then check out the PBS series Monstrum which had an episode on the Yule Cat last year:

But if you’re looking for one of the only known written accounts of the Yule Cat (despite it being suggested that it’s an ancient tradition), you’ll have to look to the 19th century poet’s Jóhannes úr Kötlum tale titled “Jólakötturinn.”

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.

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.

The translation doesn’t allow it to be very lyrical in English, but hopefully it still gets across the fun blend of holiday cheer and spooky warning! Because what’s Christmas without a little bit of scariness in these long cold nights?

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