The Yule Lads, or Yulemen, are figures from Icelandic folklore who in modern times have become the Icelandic version of Santa Claus. Their number has varied throughout the ages, but currently they are considered to be thirteen. They put rewards or punishments into shoes placed by children in window sills during the last thirteen nights before Christmas Eve. Every night, one Yuletide lad visits each child, leaving gifts or rotting potatoes, depending on the child’s behaviour throughout the year.
The Yule Lads originate from Icelandic folklore. Early on their number and depictions varied greatly depending on location, with each individual Lad ranging from mere pranksters to homicidal monsters who eat children.
In 1932 the poem “Jólasveinarnir” was published as a part of the popular poetry book “Jólin Koma” (“Christmas Arrives”) by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum. The poem reintroduced Icelandic society to Icelandic Yuletide folklore and established what is now considered the canonical thirteen Yule Lads, their personalities and connection to other folkloric characters.
The Yule Lads were originally portrayed as being mischievous, or even criminal, pranksters who would steal from, or in other way harass the population (at the time mostly rural farmers). They all had descriptive names that conveyed their modus operandi.
The Yule Lads are traditionally said to be the sons of the mountain-dwelling trolls Grýla and Leppalúði. They would trek from the mountains to scare Icelandic children who misbehaved before Christmas. Additionally, the Yule Lads are often depicted with the Yule Cat, a beast that, according to folklore, eats children who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas.
In modern times the Yule Lads have been depicted as taking on a more benevolent role comparable to Santa Claus and other related figures. They are occasionally depicted as wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing (only in some books and decorations), but are otherwise generally shown wearing the costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus.