Food & Culture
In the Freezing Snow, the Yule Cat Roams, Waiting to Devour You
By Gwendolyn Elliott December 9, 2016
As I woke to a snowy scene this morning, and then promptly broke up the a.m. pre-feeding fight between my two cats, my thoughts drifted to the story of the Yule Cat, the mythological Icelandic feline who roams the winter countryside in search of under-performing laborers…to eat. The grim yet oddly playful legend is the creation of the hearty, industrious Icelanders who needed a good excuse to rally workers to finish processing wool before the end of the year.
According to legend, “the ones who took part in the work would be rewarded with new clothes, but those who did not would get nothing and thus would be preyed upon by the monstrous cat.” Naturally, the tale has been incorporated as a cautionary reminder, much like “Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good,” to keep the kids focused on their tasks and on good behavior during the holidays. (Parents take note if your child is growing skeptical of the Elf on the Shelf.)
What’s more, our “The Night Before Christmas” pales in comparison to the Icelanders’ “Jólakötturinn,” an epic and frightful poem
inspired by this way-too-frisky feline, penned by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum.
May you enjoy the snow today, the poem below and forever avoid the dreaded Yule Cat.
by Jóhannes úr Kötlum
You all know the Yule Cat
And that Cat was huge indeed.
People didn’t know where he came from
Or where he went.
He opened his glaring eyes wide,
The two of them glowing bright.
It took a really brave man
To look straight into them.
His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back arched up high.
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.
He gave a wave of his strong tail,
He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.
Sometimes up in the valley,
Sometimes down by the shore.
He roamed at large, hungry and evil
In the freezing Yule snow.
In every home
People shuddered at his name.
If one heard a pitiful “meow”
Something evil would happen soon.
Everybody knew he hunted men
But didn’t care for mice.
He picked on the very poor
That no new garments got
For Yule – who toiled
And lived in dire need.
From them he took in one fell swoop
Their whole Yule dinner
Always eating it himself
If he possibly could.
Hence it was that the women
At their spinning wheels sat
Spinning a colorful thread
For a frock or a little sock.
Because you mustn’t let the Cat
Get hold of the little children.
They had to get something new to wear
From the grownups each year.
And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve
And the Cat peered in,
The little children stood rosy and proud
All dressed up in their new clothes.
Some had gotten an apron
And some had gotten shoes
Or something that was needed
– That was all it took.
For all who got something new to wear
Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp
He then gave an awful hiss
But went on his way.
Whether he still exists I do not know.
But his visit would be in vain
If next time everybody
Got something new to wear.
Now you might be thinking of helping
Where help is needed most.
Perhaps you’ll find some children
That have nothing at all.
Perhaps searching for those
That live in a lightless world
Will give you a happy day
And a Merry, Merry Yule.