The Terrible Truth of the 13 Yule Lads

           For some strange reason it always seems like almost every Christmas myth has some deep dark secret attached to it, one that few people know or usually even care to know. Did you know, for example, that Santa Claus was once a pagan god of darkness called the Holly King, who was heroically slain at the coming of each Winter Solstice by the horned God of Spring in order to end his frozen reign and return life and light to the world? No, of course you didn't know that, because now he buys us all off with candy canes and presents and that great Dionysian Oak King, the one who brought life back into the world, well he's barely even remembered, except in a few frozen regions of northern Europe where he's paraded about in chains as St. Nick’s demonic bogeyman, the Krampus.

           So the story was changed so that an evil monster became the "good guy" (unless, like me, you don’t like compulsory shopping or sweatshop elves forced to make me presents I don't want or need) and the original hero is transformed into this big scary monster (unless, I suppose, you really like nature, and you see the fur and hooves, and even the horns, for what they really are; simply the emblems of a forest god transformed unfairly into a demon by a senescent and celibate church), but I digress.

           The reason I bring this all up, is that now the sinister Santa Claus seems poised to consume yet another traditional myth, this time in Iceland, where the 13 Yule Lads are more and more often finding themselves transformed into just 13 bland clones of jolly old St. Nick, giving the barons of industry who are bringing him there thirteen times the present purchasing and thirteen times the marketing power. The problem here is that, yet again, the story of the 13 Yule Lads, the one which has persisted for the last hundred years or so anyway, is not nearly as simple or as straightforward as most people believe.

           Truth is, the real tale is far darker than anything you’ve probably ever heard before. I mean it. Seriously. It's pretty damn grim.

           If I didn’t hate Santa’s black materialistic hypocrisy more than I hate almost anything else, I might even think that it was a bit of a blessing that he’s moving in to wipe these 13 terrible monsters from the cultural memory of that great nation, but the thing is that the current myth, while severely white washed, serves a very important purpose. There are certain things that it's best that we not completely forget, various clues and seemingly purposeless customs, which can help us avoid problems that might just be too weird, too fundamentally unthinkable, for most people to face head on. No, actually, I'm almost certain that the true story is just too unbelievable and fantastic to warn people about any other way, so the tale which you probably know of the 13 Yule Lads simply must remain in place, if as nothing else, then as a pious, yet immanently practical, fraud.

           What’s that, you say YOU want to hear the true story of the 13 Yule Lads? Hmm... Yes, I suppose someone else out there ought to know. Otherwise, once the story of Santa Claus is all the people of Iceland can remember, they’ll be no clues left to protect their children from the enormous looming danger posed by these 13 very real, and very hungry, winter spirits.

          So, whether you believe it or not, what I’m about to tell you here is the utterly unmetaphorical and often times fairly disturbing yearly haunting cycle of the so called 13 Yule Lads.

           You might want to read this with the lights on. All of the lights.

          It always begins somewhere secluded, in a home where the people are not quite right, on December 12th. The first Yule Lad is said to arrive then, the one called Sheep-Cote Clod, and then, on the next night, comes the one called Gully Gawk, yet these will only ever bother with vulnerable animals left penned up outside, those left without adequate shelter or proper care in general. These first two, small, weak, and crippled spirits, are really far too timid to come any closer than that, but the next four, Stubby, the Spoon Licker, the Pot Scraper, and the worst one of all, the one they call the Bowl Licker, these four can and will enter your home. Of course it’s just to hunt for the scraps left in your pans, then on your spoons, then in your pots and, finally, in any bowl the Bowl Licker can reach from his secret hiding place beneath your bed.

           Ah, I got your attention with that one, didn’t I? Because what starts harmlessly enough, way out in the yard, grows stronger, more brazen, working its way ever so slowly through your kitchen, moving unseen through the benighted rooms of your quiet home, until, by that sixth long winter night, the Bowl Licker finds you where you sleep and takes up his post beneath your bed. Often times, he’ll even allow you to hear him there, breathing, just so he can feed on your fears even further.

           Now, if at the end of that first week, after first gathering their strength by stealing your animal’s vital energies in order to breach your home, and then moving in like vermin to feed on wasted scraps of food, unhappy memories, and, as I said, the delicious anxieties and vivid imaginings of restless children, indeed, if they’ve gathered enough to not only feed themselves but to entice the rest of their brood to follow, well then, just like clockwork, on the 18th day of December, that’s when the violence will begin.

           They call him the Door Slammer. Even on farms with the best tended live stalk and the most meticulously cleaned homes, he can still manage to raise a bit of a ruckus if his brothers have somehow gathered enough psychic energy to bring him there as well. The banging you’ll here, however, isn’t usually being made by a mere slamming of mundane doors, although the mounting psycho-kinetic energies will at this point begin moving objects, perhaps shifting a table or overturning a chair, rattling your windows, and, of course, manifesting his signature “door slamming” as well. No, the pounding that will cause you to jump upright in your bed in the middle of the night is the unique and unsettling sound of the very walls of reality being assaulted by what at that point will finally be attempting to break through them, to physically enter our world.

           With nearly half of their invasive force now gathered together unseen in your home, feeding on the sins of your past, and the not so distant ones as well, they will begin to attempt to pull across the very worst of their clan, and God help you if they’ve found enough energy to do so.

           Of course the first physical manifestation that arrives on that eighth night is actually rather small, microbial even. Skyr, for those who don’t know, is a cultured yogurt which is drank in heavy amounts by Icelandic children who hope to grow big and strong. All the more ironic then that the Skyr-Gobbler comes on like a bacterial infection, gumming up the eyes, infesting your nose and your ears and your throat with a puss like substance much like the Skyr from which it derives its name, but which desiccates its victims as it drains them of both their sanity and their vitality. Some investigators have even theorized that the latter so-called “manifestations” are all little more than vivid hallucinations brought on by this mysterious winter ailment, which they credit to infected livestock and poor sanitation. They’re not though. No, the spirits are just able to grow much, much, bigger once this one finds its way into a proper human food source. Much bigger indeed.

           Every child in Iceland knows that Sausage-Swiper hides up in the rafters. On the night he arrives you’ll begin to hear the scampering of taloned footfalls up in your attic, or, if it’s dark and high enough to provide adequate cover, you may even dimly glimpse his spidery form crawling across your ceilings in the night. Sausage-Swiper arrives a mere nine days after the first of the Yule Lads selected your home for their progressively intensifying assault, and on this, the 20th of December, the eve of the Winter Solstice, the second longest and second darkest night of the year will find you battling all nine of these hungry spirits at once, each of them now draining you from a different place and in their own unique way.

           Your animals will all have long since fallen ill or have died, but by now, of course, you’re sick as well. Your home is now a complete mess, rotting food left out despite your best efforts to clean; assuming you ever even tried to clear away the filth out of which they spawn. There are still those disturbing noises under the beds, the doors and the windows opening and closing, things falling off of shelves, or even, at times, flying violently across the room. Perhaps worst of all, there’s now a greasy slime on almost everything you use, crawling all over your flesh, into and out of your nose, caked around the corners of your eyes, lodging inside your ears and even entering into your mouth, and nothing you eat or drink seems to break you from this sickening sense of being slowly consumed from within. The final straw then seems to come when this “thing” begins moving swiftly over you, hiding in the high corners of your ceiling, staring down at you from the eves of your home with its burning yellow eyes.

           You may imagine it has gotten as bad as it can get but, of course, it’s not over yet; Far from it.

           The infestation, if nothing has curbed its growth, has only one final movement to make, as each of the Yule Lads comes fully to life in its proper nightmarish form. Surrounded by such terrors no mortal man, woman, or child could possibly manage to stay inside their homes throughout the terrible trials that befall them on this maddening Solstice Eve, no matter how cold or uninviting the outside may be. Yet this panic stricken exodus that sends the sick and fevered shambling out into the streets is no mere coincidence. No, this is merely the final movement in a tragic symphony of mass death and destruction which begins the moment these nine infernal plague-spawn have forced their poor doomed prey to run.

           Should nothing else intercede to stop them, or if their now ailing prey doesn't mercifully expire before the arrival of the Winter Solstice, then God help everyone, because, like a ripe sack of spider’s eggs disgorging a ravenous mass of writhing new life, the infamous and deadly Wild Hunt will once again be let loose upon the Earth.

           For the next four nights, right up until the sun rises on Christmas day, the Yule Lads will run these plague dogs as far and as wide as they can go. Everything they touch, every step they take, every living thing that crosses their infectious path, and most certainly every home that foolishly takes them in, will be marked for the Hunt. Many will grow sick, while others might just experience a greatly accelerated series of sinister events akin to that dark carnival of calamity that culminated so gradually in that first doomed home from which they've sprung, yet these, by far, are the lucky ones.

           This is the everlooming danger which this simple childish myth was long ago created to help avert. Now mark the terrible truth of it well, because the final four Lads will manifest during this time, and the true terror of this holiday curse will becomes clear with the increasingly chilling arrival of each one. Their traditional names translate rather well to describe exactly what horrible assets they bring to the Wild Hunt and its bloody quest for children’s, or at least primarily children's, souls.

           On the night of the Winter Solstice, the first night of the Wild Hunt is lead by a great evil called the Window-Peeper. Once again the Lads must approach from outside, yet the Window-Peeper is no Sheep-Cote Clod or Gully Gawk. No, by now the Lads have gathered enormous strength, enough to allow the Window-Peeper to tear the soul out of any child who's foolish enough to meet his gaze should he peer in through their window with his glowing yellow eyes.

           Then, on the night of the 22nd, the Doorway-Sniffer rises. Merely hiding under your sheet will not save you now. No, the Doorway-Sniffer need only smell an unwashed child to lock onto his or her rank scent, and, once that occurs, he will pursue them past any and all defenses which might be unfortunate enough to stand between him and his utterly doomed prey.

           Now it is on the 23rd of December, with all eleven of the previously mentioned Yule Lads still lurking about as well, that the one that they call the Meat-Hook finally arrives. With a full three nights worth of infected land claimed for his terrible Hunt, he is the only one who is big enough and fast enough, and just plain brutal enough, to cover just about all of it on his very first night out. No, it doesn’t go well at all for children who have the grave misfortune of being anywhere near his hunting grounds on the 23rd, or really anytime thereafter, all the way up until he disappears on January 5th. I really would rather say as little about Meat-Hook as possible. Please, just… use your imagination.

           Now Christmas Eve marks the thirteenth and final arrival of these terrible Yule Lads, and with it comes perhaps the worst one of them all, a vast creature of living darkness who children know simply as the Candle-Stealer. With all of his other brothers still on the hunt for any prey which has been marked by the pustulent ooze which pours from those cursed by Skyr-Gobbler, the Candle Stealer provides this already unthinkably efficient engine of slaughter with one final and terrible power: Able to stretch out in every direction, reaching into every shadow, into every last dark place that remains untouched by the light, on the night of December 24th the Candle Stealer opens himself up to become an almost infinite series of secret doors, creating dark passageways to allow all twelve of his monstrous kin, even the dreaded Meat-Hook, to appear in any shadowy place that lies on the darkened side of the planet Earth, and, one could imagine, even beyond that as well. For centuries parents around the world have assured their clueless children that those sounds they heard were simply Santa's sleigh; now, unfortunately, you'll know what it really is when it comes for you, because although they still restrict themselves to the cursed reach of their doomed plague dogs, this final unfortunate development allows them to drive these now pale and rotting husks into any dark place the Yule Lads may wish to go, and they wish, most of all, to go wherever there are children to eat.

           You may not live anywhere near a farm, you may think that you are safe from monsters which are believed by many to only haunt the snowy volcanic isle of Iceland, but, like billions of children from Peking to Pittsburgh, from London to Los Angeles to Laos, you would be sadly mistaken. The only good news, in light of such an omnipresent and inescapable threat, is that once Christmas arrives the Yule Lads all begin to depart one by one, in the same order that they arrived, until, by the now dwindling night of January 6th, only the Candle Stealer will be left, desperately attempting to lure one final child into the massive black folds of its shadowy body, hoping to swallow them up before even his mountainous maleficence must fade away as well. At least these children are left alive, if only so that he can feed on their continual terror until it all begins again next year, just like it always does, on the 12th day of an unseasonably cold December.

           You've all been warned. Watch for the signs, and, of course, have a Merry Krampusmas.