Christmas is always a turning point in the year for me, when my thoughts turn to family here and gone, what has been and a future I hope for. This year I’m fondly remembering my holidays as an exchange student in Iceland.
Maybe it’s because Iceland is now “in” as a destination and film location, but mostly because I made my 10th return visit to my Icelandic family this year. With each return, I learn a little more about the culture and about family.
Christmas of 1969 was a major turning point in my life. It was my first time away from my family, living with an unknown family in a country I couldn’t have found on a map four months earlier.
It is a place where the sun came up for only five hours a day, and every fifth word of Icelandic made sense. I understood when, where, what, why, now, and right now, but not the subject of the sentence.
For example, when my new sister told me we needed to put our shoes in the window two weeks before Christmas for the 13 Yule Lads, I nodded my head as if I understood, but what I thought was, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but if I nod enough, you’ll change the subject to something I can translate.”
She explained that good children would get candy or gifts, and bad ones get rotten potatoes. (I guess that is because there are more potatoes than coal in Iceland. We ate potatoes twice a day, every day.)
Each Yule Lad had a descriptive name outlining his preferred misbehavior. Besides Pot Licker and Door Slammer, there were Sheep Worrier, Skyr (yogurt) Stealer, Candle Eater, Pot Scraper … the list goes on; just Google it.
You’ll note that most of what they bothered were necessities for survival in a northern winter. There was also a big black cat, who was supposed to be lucky, and a troll/ogre for a mother. Clever or sneaky children blamed loud noises and missing cakes on the Yule Lads.
As I tried to untangle the story in my mind, logic told me the Icelandic holiday customs had to connect to some Christian theme, but my logic failed, with good reason. The Yule Lads crept out of the pre-Christian mythology of trolls, ogres and elves.
The geography of Iceland lends itself to hearing and seeing threatening supernatural beings. Originally, the Yule Lads were starving, evil tricksters who came out of the badlands during the shortest and coldest days of the year to steal children for their mother to cook.
Their mother – half troll, half ogre – was rumored to have eaten one of her husbands. Instead of threats of coal in stockings, children were threatened with becoming dinner. It is like shades of Hansel and Gretel.
In the 1700s, a law was passed forbidding parents’ use of the Yule Lads to control children. Their infamy faded for centuries. In the last century, the Yule Lads were reformed into simple scamps, guilty of small pranks and the bringers of gifts to good children. It became just one more way to brighten up a dark and dreary time of year.
That Christmas came and went with me constantly befuddled by the customs and language. When I applied to be an exchange student, I asked for a country and language I knew nothing about. That Christmas, I was confused, but still grateful that I’d received such surprises. I was allowed to look at what it meant to be family through new eyes and to stake a claim on my place in a world that was much larger than I’d imagined.
By January, the language switch flipped on. I had a dream in Icelandic about aspirin, and the days began to lengthen. By the time Lent came around, I was able to understand why children took crepe-paper whips from door to door demanding cream puffs. But you’ll have to wait for that story.
This holiday, I celebrate with my Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist and Jewish immediate family, and I’m grateful for all the unique customs and beliefs that sweeten God’s creation.
Carolyn Zutler of Fresno is married, the mother of three grown children and the grandmother of two perfect grandsons. She paints, prints and creates fiber art. She has been the host mother to nine foreign exchange students from Belgium, Germany, France, China, Korea and, of course, Iceland. Tonight she is celebrating the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve with family and friends. Write to her at email@example.com.
Foreign exchange how-to:
Would you like to study abroad, host or make friends with high school foreign students? Programs also are possible for people over age 18 interested in internships, teaching and getting college credit.