If you’re not a cat person, then prepare to have your feline fears suitably justified. For Christmas is coming, and the horrifying Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat is on the prowl. This monstrous creature, a staple of Icelandic folklore, stalks the snowy countryside and searches out those who haven’t received new clothes on Christmas Eve. Anyone who has not had the fashionable wherewithal to update their winter wardrobe will be devoured by this malicious mog. Yes, you heard me, devoured. Or, as the Icelanders would euphemistically call it, to be “claimed by the Christmas cat”.
So, if you ever find yourself lacking in fresh wintry apparel on Christmas Eve and hear a pitiful meowing at your door, you know exactly who’s waiting for you on the other side. But how does the cantankerous kitty know if you’ve received any new clothes, I hear you cry? Well, he patrols your homes and peers into your windows, of course. He’s the cute, cuddly peeping Tom-cat who has a passion for frolicking in the snow and the fresh taste of human blood.
Yet you can’t entirely blame him; after all, it’s in his nature. Jólakötturinn heralds from a wide pantheon of celebrated child-eaters. He is the house pet of Grýla, a horrifying ogress who loves nothing more than her mischievous sons, the Yule Lads, and the sweet, sweet taste of baby meat. While the thirteen Yule Lads wreak havoc on the thirteen days leading up to Christmas, Grýla and Jólakötturinn are busy gorging on plate after plate of baby back ribs. In some versions of the tale, the Yule Cat eats the food of those who haven’t received new clothes, rather than eating them. So, instead of preying on those too poor to afford new threads, it simply eats the only square meal they’ll probably have that year. Nice.
Stories of this ferocious feline were considered so terrifying that, at one point, it was illegal to use them to scare children. However, the allure of child abuse proved too strong and the ban was soon lifted. The stories themselves served as an incentive to maintain a good work ethic, as working hard was the only way to guarantee you would get new clothes for Christmas. In short, the moral of the story was: work hard for material gain or slack off and get eaten by a giant cat.
And it seems this tactic has worked rather well, since the people of Iceland put in more overtime than any other European nation. They may have traded in the loom for a modern computer, but their productivity doesn’t appear to have waned. Even to this day, people still consider receiving new clothes before Christmas to be of paramount importance. Honestly, we couldn’t think of a more stylish way to avoid being eaten alive.
To all intents and purposes, Jólakötturinn looks just like a normal cat. Aside from the fact that he’s monstrously huge, has whiskers as sharp as needles, giant eyes that glow like beacons, and razor sharp claws the size of an average snowmobile. He is often depicted as looking emaciated, since it seems the good ol’ Icelanders rarely forget to update their wardrobe and he’s probably gone several years without a decent meal. He has a particularly strong, large tail, which allows him to leap great distances and pounce on his “oh-so-passé” prey. The jury is still out as to whether large balls of twine, toy mice, or lazer pointers have any effect on this furry foe.
The origins of Jólakötturinn are shrouded in mystery and, although he is believed to date back to the Dark Ages, written records of his mythos didn’t appear until the nineteenth century. Historians posit that he may be connected to several other mythical animals associated with the Yuletide season such as the Yule Goat, a pagan deity who was charged primarily with watching people closely and making sure their Yule preparations were done correctly. After all, Christ was born in a barn, so it seems only fitting that farm animals should be sent to do his bidding.
Yet the most likely explanation for his conception was as a simple yet effective threat. Farmers created the horrifying figure of the Yule Cat to encourage their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. Any worker who was seen to be diligent and hardworking was rewarded with new clothes, while those who were lazy and idle were given nothing and risked becoming the kitty’s next meal. What better way to get your employees to reach their quota than risk of feline dismemberment.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t account for those who were too poor or unlucky to receive new clothing during the Christmas season. While it seemed these ill-fated souls were doomed to spend the rest of their days jostling for space in a cat’s stomach, this dilemma opens up a whole new meaning behind the myth. People were not only encouraged to be assiduous during the run-up to Christmas, but were simultaneously urged to help those less fortunate. Like Dobby and the fabled sock, families would give clothes to the needy and destitute so that everyone could enjoy a carnage-free Christmas.
References to our terrorist tabby are few and far-between. In fact, they’re so rare that we could only manage to dredge up two:
- The Yule Cat mythos was popularised by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum in his poem Jólakötturinn. It was this literary work that promoted the idea of giving to the needy, as evidenced in the lines: “You may have it now in your mind/to help, when it’s needed./Maybe there still are children/that receive nothing at all”.
- Iceland’s very own mental patient Björk wrote a song called “Jólakötturinn”, which was based on Kötlum’s poem and even uses some of the lines as lyrics.
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