Lusinemarg via Wikimedia Commons // GFDL
Lusinemarg via Wikimedia Commons // GFDL

Iceland's Yule Lads Bring Gifts, Steal Meat

Lusinemarg via Wikimedia Commons // GFDL
Lusinemarg via Wikimedia Commons // GFDL

Some Christmas themes are universal: be good, and you will be rewarded. Misbehave, and you’ll wish you hadn't. Here in the United States, that reward often takes the form of giant piles of presents; the punishment, a lump of coal, or worse, no gifts at all. The idea is pretty much the same in Iceland, but the specifics are a little different. Where we have Santa, Icelandic kids can expect visits from the band of bearded wild men known as the Yule Lads

As Jaya Saxena explains for Atlas Obscura, every year, beginning on December 12, the 13 mountain men descend from their mountain homes. They come down singly, one each night, until Christmas Eve, which means 13 full days of fear-driven good behavior. 

The lads are said to be the sons of the child-eating trolls Grýla and Leppalúði. Like large, slightly unsettling versions of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, each lad has his own quirks, his own silly name, and his own demands. Spoon Licker requires a batter-covered spoon; Sheep Worrier tries to harass the sheep; and Meat Hook wants a taste of every family’s smoked lamb, which he steals with his hook. In exchange for these bribes, good children receive a small gift in their shoes each night. Bad children get a raw potato. 

The Yule Lads weren’t always this cooperative. A few centuries ago, the lads and their friends Krampus and the Yule Cat bypassed the raw potatoes and went straight to kidnapping naughty children. Instead of asking nicely, they stole their milk and meat and ate people’s candles, leaving families to freeze in the dark.   

The troublemakers got a makeover in 1932, when a man named Jóhannes frá Kötlum penned a jolly poem called “Jólasveinavísur.” The poem reframed the lads’ mischievous past and bestowed them with the goofy names they bear today. 

These days, depictions of the Yule Lads have them dressed in red costumes, slinging big sacks of toys. In other words, the lads now look suspiciously like Santa. This is simply inaccurate, folklore expert Magnús Skarphéðinsson told Atlas Obscura: “I have met more than 800 Icelanders that have seen elves, and four or five that have seen Yule Lads. They were old fashioned dressed, poor, a little dirty, a little rude and hungry, trying to get food.” 

Whether the real Yule Lads are portly or gaunt, friendly or fierce, one thing's for sure: When it comes to coercing good behavior out of little kids, they get the job done.  

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Want to Recycle Your Christmas Tree? Feed It to an Elephant
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

When the holiday season finally comes to a close, people get creative with the surplus of dead Christmas trees. One San Francisco-based artist transformed brittle shrubs into hanging installation pieces. Others use pine needles for mulch, or repurpose trees into bird sanctuaries. For the average person, sticking it into a wood chipper or "treecycling" it as part of a community program are all eco-friendly ways to say goodbye to this year's Douglas fir. None of these solutions, however, are as cute as the waste-cutting strategy employed by some zoos around the world: giving them to elephants.

Each year, zookeepers at Tierpark Berlin—a facility that bills itself as “Europe’s largest adventure animal park”—feed the elephants unsold pine trees. The plants are reportedly pesticide-free, and they serve as a good (albeit prickly) supplement to the pachyderms' usual winter diets.

A bit closer to home, the residents of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee rely on local residents to take part in their annual Christmas Tree Drive. In addition to being nutrient-rich, the tree's needles are said to help aid in an elephant's digestion. But beyond all that, it's pretty adorable to watch.

5 Eco-Friendly Ways to Dispose of Your Christmas Tree

What’s the environmentally safest way to dispose of your Christmas tree? It’s hard to say. Grown, managed, transported, and recycled efficiently, a real Christmas tree’s environmental impact should be near neutral. Unfortunately, not all Christmas tree plantations are equal in their environmental impact.

The most eco-friendly way is to leave the tree in the ground, where it belongs, so you never have to dispose of it. But then you don't have a Christmas tree in your house to bring festive cheer. One thing you can do is be environmentally smart when it comes to the tree's disposal. After this festive season, why not try one of these eco-friendly methods.


If you’re lucky enough to have access to a big wood-chipper, you may be able to chip the entire tree. Wood-chip is great as a decorative landscaping material. But if you really want to do great things for the environment (and if you have access to a lot of Christmas trees), you could make a bioreactor to denitrify water. Nitrates are put on farms across the world to help increase crop output, but a considerable amount is washed away into lakes and rivers where it’s disastrous for fish and potentially toxic for people. A wood chip bioreactor encourages the growth of bacteria that break down the nitrates in the drainage water, reducing the amount that gets into the water supply. It's not a simple project, however. To make one, you have to dig a big trench, get the water to flow through said trench, and fill it with wood chips. More info can be found here [PDF].



If your tree hasn’t yet let go of its needles—and you haven’t yet let go of Christmas, get crafty with it. Cut off small branches and bind them around a circle of wire to make an attractive wreath. This looks even better if some of the cones are still attached. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could set up an essential oil extractor to get a supercharged Christmas scent. If you are already distilling alcohol, you have everything you need (here's how to do it). With a little less effort and equipment, you can make a weaker liquid called hydrosol, which is a fragrant condensate water containing water-soluble parts of the needles.


Many legumes, such as garden peas, are thigmotropic, meaning that they respond to objects they touch, growing in coils along or up them. Needle-free Christmas tree branches have lots of twigs, texture, and knobby protrusions for peas and beans to get a grip on. This allows them to grow upwards strongly toward light. Simply stick a small tree branch in the soil next to each new shoot for a free, effective legume-climbing frame. Another advantage of this technique is that it makes grazing animals less likely to munch those tender green shoots, as they tend to avoid getting Christmas tree twigs spiked up their noses.


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Come January, it’s cold, the festivities are over, work looms, and you’ve got too much on your mind to be thinking about dead Christmas tree horticulture or crafts. Fortunately, a simple solution is at hand: Most counties and municipalities now provide Christmas tree recycling points where you can take your tree for chipping. Some “TreeCycle” points will even exchange your tree for a bag of wood-chip or chip mulch. OK, this probably means that you’ll have to jam that Christmas tree into your car once more, but as long as you don’t have to drive too many miles out of your way, Christmas tree recycling is a quick and easy environmentally-friendly option.


After you’ve had your Christmas cheer, why shouldn’t fish have some fun? Several communities have programs in place where they’ll take your old Christmas tree, drill a hole in the base, tie a brick to it, and throw it in a lake. When humans create artificial lakes, they tend to be relatively featureless on the bottom for easy dredging. That’s great for us, but it means baby fish have nowhere to escape predators. Christmas trees provide a nice, temporary place for the fish to hide out and explore.

If, on the other hand, you’d like to see your Christmas tree mauled by a pride of lions, that’s OK too! Some zoos around the world take Christmas tree donations (but please remove all the tinsel first) and allow the animals to play with them.


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