Meet Grýla, the Christmas Troll Who Eats Iceland's Naughtiest Children

Grýla and Leppalúði installations in Akureyri, Iceland
Grýla and Leppalúði installations in Akureyri, Iceland
David Stanley, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In Iceland, naughty children don't just get lumps of coal during the Christmas season. Sometimes, they get eaten. Meet Grýla, the fearsome fairy tale ogre that keeps Icelandic kids toeing the line during the holidays.

The Christmas Witch, as some English-language sources call her (like Smithsonian magazine, which took a fun dive into the myth in 2017) is actually more like the Christmas Troll, one of many scary, man-eating trolls featured in Icelandic folk tales. During jól, Iceland's Christmas season, she supposedly comes down from her cave in the mountains to gather up ill-behaved kids for her and her lazy and browbeaten husband Leppalúði to make into stew.

Folk tales and poems about Grýla have been around since at least the Middle Ages, according to British folklore researcher Jacqueline Simpson's 1972 book Icelandic Folktales and Legends. In Icelandic folklore, trolls are stupid giants, most of whom are very dangerous and actively hate Christianity. They're usually used to explain rock formations, which many legends claim are either trolls turned to stone or stones thrown by a troll at a church. In the 13th century, the word grýla was a general term for a she-troll, but eventually, it came to name a specific, child-eating monster.

The legends don't agree on what, exactly, Grýla might look like, though like all Icelandic trolls, she's a gross, massive giant. One rhyme says she has 15 tails, each of which holds 100 bags with 20 children in each bag, doomed to be a feast for the troll's family. Another says she has 40 tails, and still another says she carries a bag of children on her thigh. Some poems say she has 300 heads, each of which has three eyes. Others describe eyes in the back of her head, ears that hang so long that they hit her in the nose, a matted beard, blackened teeth, and hooves. All these stories agree on one point: She's very, very ugly.

Grýla isn't a standalone figure in Icelandic folklore, though. She is the mother of the Yule Lads, 13 mischief makers that supposedly visit on the 13 days of Christmas. Her companion, the Jólakötturinn—the Yule Cat—is said to have a taste for human flesh himself, lurking in the snowy countryside and gobbling up anyone, adults or children, who didn't get any clothes for Christmas—a sign that they didn't work hard enough.

Grýla functions as a cautionary tale, but most adults don't really believe in her, unlike, say, elves, which a number of modern Icelanders consider an important and very real part of their culture. As Simpson writes in the introduction to her book, even hundreds of years ago, "parents taught their children to fear the bugbear Grýla, but did not believe in her themselves."

Some tales have softened Grýla's image over the years. In an episode of Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, for instance, she's presented as a powerful witch who protects mistreated children, not a monster who's intent on devouring them. She's now depicted in statues and Christmas installations all over Iceland—even at airports—but in many cases, she retains at least a little of her scary vibe.

Love Yuletide monsters? Take our quiz to find out which legendary Christmas figure you're most like.

The 3 Best Mattresses You Can Order Online Right Now

iStock.com/diego_cervo
iStock.com/diego_cervo

So you're ready to ditch your lumpy old mattress for a newer, more comfortable model, huh? (Hello, memory foam.) If you don’t feel like fighting off the crowds while shopping at your local mattress outlet, there are plenty of great online deals you can take advantage of—and you don't have to sift through a thousand reviews to find the best one. Check out our buying guide to the three comfiest mattresses on the market right now from Leesa, Allswell, and Linenspa. Several models are on sale for Memorial Day weekend, so grab a deal while you can.

1. Leesa’s Universal Adaptive Feel Memory Foam Cooling Mattress

Leesa's universal adaptive feel memory foam cooling mattress
Leesa, Amazon

Do you kick off the covers in the middle of the night because you get too hot? Try Leesa’s 10-inch-tall cooling mattress. It has three unique foam layers: The first layer is designed to keep you cool, while the second offers body-contouring comfort, and the third helps relieve pressure and provide core support. The “adaptive feel” label refers to the fact that it adapts to your body no matter what your preferred sleeping position may be. The mattress comes in twin through California king sizes, with prices starting at $425.

Buy it on Amazon or from Leesa's website. The latter is currently offering 15 percent off plus two free pillows with any purchase for Memorial Day.

2. Allswell’s Luxe Hybrid Mattress

This extra-thick mattress is so popular that it frequently sells out from Allswell and at other retailers. It packs 12 inches of high-end material into one mattress, including quilted memory foam and an outer layer designed keep you cool in hot weather. Similar mattresses tend to go for thousands of dollars, but the Luxe Hybrid retails for far less. Prices start at $345 for a twin, $485 for a full, $585 for a queen, or $745 for a king. (Not sure about the difference in mattress sizes? We've got you covered.)

Buy it from Allswell's website or at Walmart starting at $345. Through May 27, you can get 15 percent off mattresses and 30 percent off bedding using the code SUMMERTIME.

3. Linenspa’s memory foam and innerspring hybrid mattress

The Linenspa memory foam and innerspring hybrid mattress
Linenspa, Amazon

Amazon customers swear by Linenspa’s hybrid mattress, which comes in sizes twin ($144) through California king ($288). Ideal for people who like medium-firm mattresses, it combines the benefits of memory foam with the support one gets from a traditional innerspring mattress. The standard version is 8 inches thick, but Linenspa also offers a 10-inch version in all sizes. (We also love the company's incredibly affordable down-alternative duvet, which is only $30 on Amazon.)

Buy it on Amazon, where the 8-inch queen mattress is regularly on sale for up to 20 percent off. It's $225 right now.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

What's the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

iStock/flySnow
iStock/flySnow

It may not be easy for some people to admit, but certain national holidays often get a little muddled—namely, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees the confusion often enough that they spelled out the distinction on their website. The two days are held six months apart: Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11, and Memorial Day takes place on the last Monday of May as part of a three-day weekend with parades and plenty of retail sales promotions. You probably realize both are intended to acknowledge the contributions of those who have served in the United States military, but you may not recall the important distinction between the two. So what's the difference?

Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was first observed on November 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution making it an annual observance in 1926. It became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize veterans of the two world wars. The intention is to celebrate all military veterans, living or dead, who have served the country, with an emphasis on thanking those in our lives who have spent time in uniform.

We also celebrate military veterans on Memorial Day, but the mood is more somber. The occasion is reserved for those who died while serving their country. The day was first observed in the wake of the Civil War, where local communities organized tributes around the gravesites of fallen soldiers. The observation was originally called Decoration Day because the graves were adorned with flowers. It was held May 30 because that date wasn't the anniversary for any battle in particular and all soldiers could be honored. (The date was recognized by northern states, with southern states choosing different days.) After World War I, the day shifted from remembering the fallen in the Civil War to those who had perished in all of America's conflicts. It gradually became known as Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May to organize a three-day weekend beginning in 1971.

The easiest way to think of the two holidays is to consider Veterans Day a time to shake the hand of a veteran who stood up for our freedoms. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who are no longer around to receive your gratitude personally.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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