My informant is a 23-year-old student originally from Iceland, but studying in Dublin. She was born and raised in Reykjavik and moved to Ireland in her 20’s to come to University there. The Jólakötturinn, literally translating to ‘Christmas Cat’, is also known in English as the Yule Cat, a tradition similar to that of Krampus, where a giant cat would come around to check if children had gotten all their chores done before Christmas. If they had, he would not eat them. Interestingly, he seems to be confined to Icelandic folklore, and does not crop up in larger Scandinavian Yuletide traditions. She is signified by the initials A.J.
A.J.: In Iceland, it is traditional for children to be given the last of their household chores to finish up before Christmas, like decorating the tree, sweeping the floor, helping out with the cooking – that kind of thing. If the children did that, they’d be given new clothes to wear for Christmas Day among their presents. The Jólakötturinn is a huge – and I mean huge, as in, bigger and taller than a house – sized cat that lives in the woods and wanders around from house to house looking in the windows to see what presents the children got for Christmas, so you have to leave all your curtains open on Christmas Eve night to let him see in. If he sees that the children have been given clothes as presents, he assumes they have been good and moves on. Even poor people do this, something as small as socks or a hat will do. But, if you haven’t gotten clothes, the Jólakötturinn will firstly eat your dinner that you would have had on Christmas Day, and then he will eat you. I think the purpose of it is similar to that of Santa Claus, in checking whether or not you have been good during the year. But I think this tradition is meant to make people also generous, because sometimes on the last day of school before winter break the teacher will give the children chores to do in the classroom, like tidying up the presses and cleaning the tables, and then the teacher hands out socks usually to the children, and you can give them to someone who did a really good job. In the end, everyone ends up with a pair of socks. It’s good for people who don’t have as much money, to keep the tradition alive without the parents having to spend a lot of money. I also think it’s nice thing to do with your friends, and makes everyone work a bit harder.
A: And do you know where the tradition came from?
A.J.: It’s been around for a long time, as my great grandmother tells me that she was told it by her grandmother, and that was a very long time ago. It’s a bit of fun to believe in, I don’t seriously believe in it but again, I got clothes every year so I didn’t have to experience whether it was truly real or not. Also it’s a good way of making kids behave, and so this seems to me to be why it has survived for so long. I was told the story by my parents when I was about five or so, and I think I will pass on the tradition in my family in the future.
The concept of someone or something checking whether or not a child has been well-behaved around Christmastime is not one unique to Icelandic tradition. The popular character of Santa Claus serves the same purpose, if not with such grave consequences should the child have been bad, rather giving them coal. It speaks to the heavy emphasis on generosity and community within the culture. The use of the cat is Iceland-specific, and this seems to me to reference the fat that cats were the companions of Vikings, and so there is a large population of cats in Nordic countries, and so it is natural to choose something so prevalent in a culture when personifying a tradition.
For another oikotype of this, see the Krampus tradition in Germany and surrounding areas: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/