The Icelandic Yule Lads bear little similarity to the world-famous Santa Claus, who is descended from St. Nicholas, patron saint of children and sailors. In contrast, the Icelandic Yule Lads are descended from trolls and their original role was to strike fear in the hearts of children. As it happens, they are the sons of two of the most hideous ogres ever known in Iceland, Grýla and Leppalúði.
No doubt most children would have wanted to avoid the Icelandic Yule Lads in the old days, since they were used by parents to frighten their children into behaving – just as Grýla and Leppalúði are today. Evidently this was of some concern to Icelandic authorities, since in 1746 a public decree was issued to prohibit parents from frightening their children with monsters and fiends like the Yule Lads.
Whether it was due to this decree or something else, the Yule Lads became increasingly benign. Over time they ceased to be a threat to children's lives, though they continued to be thieving scoundrels. In the 20th century, the Icelandic Yule Lads became strongly influenced by their foreign colleagues, both in terms of conduct and appearance. They began wearing red garments on special occasions, similar to Santa Claus and the Danish Christmas gnomes. They also developed an unprecedented kindness towards children, to the point where they started depositing gifts in their shoes.
Yet despite these foreign influences, the Icelandic Yule Lads kept their traditional Icelandic characteristics, including their names, their residence in the mountains, and their number – thirteen. That said, there has been some discrepancy over the years as to how many Yule Lads there actually were, and also what their correct names were. Dozens of different names for the Yule Lads appear in different folk tales and stories. A popular poem about the Yule Lads by the late Jóhannes úr Kötlum, which first appeared in the book Jólin koma (Christmas is Coming) in 1932, served to make their names and number much better known. The names of the 13 Yule Lads that most Icelanders know today are all derived from that poem.