Not all Christmas traditions and tales are nice. You may be aware of Krampus, the demonic half-man, half-goat that is a tradition across Europe and has been made famous in some tales. But you may be less familiar with the Yule Cat or the Christmas Cat.
The Yule Cat sounds like a lovely name, so how bad could this kitten really be? Let’s take a look.
The Christmas Cat Poem
‘If one heard a pitiful “meow”
Something evil would happen soon.
Everybody knew he hunted men
But didn’t care for mice.’
‘Ef mjálmað var aumlega úti
var ólukkan samstundir vís
Allir vissu´, að hann veiddi menn en vildi ekki mýs.’
This is an extract of the poem Jólasveinarnir by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (in both English and Icelandic), which he wrote in 1932.
The Yule Cat was said to have been a creature that has existed for hundreds of years, but this may have been exaggerated – its modern popularity certainly stems from this poem and there are only a handful of written mentions of the cat in the century before the poem was put together.
It has spun into quite the story, one that is still told to Icelandic children to this day.
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The Christmas Cat Folklore
The folklore surrounds the Yule Cat, whose name is Jólakötturinn. This is not some precious little kitty, but a rather monstrous cat that terrorizes families on Christmas Eve.
According to the story, the Yule Cat is a large black cat that appears on Christmas Eve night when everyone is fast asleep, and prowls around the town. It is very interested in Christmas trees and the presents that lie underneath.
However, it has a particular interest – it is looking for new clothes. And if it doesn’t find that you have new clothes under the Christmas tree then it is displeased – and so as punishment, it will feast on the children in the home.
Quite gruesome, right? That wouldn’t be a nice way for parents to wake up on Christmas Day, to find their children have become prey to the cat.
Jólakötturinn is said to be associated with a group of supernatural beings made famous by another poem, called the Yule Lads. These are led by Gryla, who is supposed to be something of an evil, twisted version of Santa Claus. She is the mother of the Yule Lads and comes down the mountain from her home every Christmas Eve with her Yule Cat by her side, looking for children to eat.
As you would expect from a Nordic folk tale, there’s a lot of association with trolls too, and Gryla is described in many tales as either being a troll or at least being troll-like.
How Did the Yule Cat Start?
It’s not entirely clear how the Yule Cat story started. There are, like I say, limited mentions of the cat in writings prior to the 1932 poem which made it much more popular.
It’s believed that the story may have started as a way of incentivizing farm workers to complete their autumn work on time, processing the wools before Christmas.
Those that completed the jobs on time would be rewarded with their new woolen clothes, while those who failed to get their work done would be left without and would therefore fall victim to the Yule Cat on Christmas Eve.
There are also some versions of the story that paint the Yule Cat in a slightly less evil light – not going so far as to eat people, but just eating the food of those who have not received new clothes on Christmas Eve.
Where to Buy the Christmas Cat Story
If you want to read the original poems of Jóhannes úr Kötlum, you’ll struggle to find published books outside of Iceland – they aren’t that popular further afield. You can download a Kindle version of Christmas is Coming – a collection of his works including The Christmas Cat – from Amazon.
There is also a novel that has been written which offers a unique spin on The Yule Cat story by Eldritch Black. It seems to have good reviews on Amazon so may be of interest if you’re looking for spooky Christmas stories about cats.
An Alternative Christmas Cat Story
Not all stories about a Christmas Cat are written to make you a bit scared, or to make sure there are new clothes under the tree! There’s a book called The Christmas Cat by Efner Tudor Holmes which is a much more upbeat picture book story about a cat at Christmas. If your younger children love cats and Christmas, then this is a better choice if you don’t want them to worry!
The Christmas Cat in Popular Culture
The Christmas Cat story has received another boost in popularity thanks to the 2020 Netflix movie The Christmas Chronicles 2. Unsurprisingly the original Icelandic name for the cat has been simplified for the movie, shortened to Jola.
Jola doesn’t threaten to eat children in the movie, but is friendly with the movie’s villains, and does injure the reindeer, Dasher. It may be a good movie for cat lovers to watch this holiday season if you want to see how they have interpreted the tale.
Christmas Cat Memes
Moving away from the Icelandic fable, there’s also a massively popular following of Christmas cat memes on the internet. If you want to get into the Christmas spirit, just spend a few minutes browsing these memes online, where you’ll see cats in a Santa hat, playing with Christmas decorations (hopefully safely) and often causing general chaos amongst the Christmas tree.
What is the Christmas Cat in Iceland?
The Christmas Cat is a folk tale about an evil cat that prowls on Christmas Eve, looking to eat children who have not received new clothes under the tree. It is specifically about new clothes and is believed to hark back to farming times.
Is the Christmas Cat real?
No, the Christmas Cat is not real – it was a legend invented to help make sure people behaved and did as they were told on the run-up to Christmas, just like all the other monster stories related to Christmas that have been invented. There’s not even believed to be a cat that once existed to inspire the story – it is completely made up.
Still – if you hear the sound of paws on the snow outside your home at Christmas Eve, you might want to check that you have some new clothes under the tree…
What is Iceland’s Christmas monster called?
Iceland’s Christmas Cat monster is called Jólakötturinn although Iceland’s stories also talk of the Yule Lads, a group of brothers that would terrorize people in various ways around the Christmas season.