It’s been some time, but with the winter holidays approaching, it’s time for another highlight from the Folklore Files! As an avowed cat lady, I was thrilled when I first heard of the Jólakötturinn, or the Yule Cat, an Icelandic Christmas legend. Unlike most holiday folklore designed to encourage children to behave, the Yule Cat is unique in one respect. While the giants Grýla and her husband Leppalúði eat misbehaving children, the Yule Cat will devour anyone not wearing new clothes on Christmas Eve. Monstrously huge and sporting fearsome teeth and claws, the Yule Cat’s appeal is unique and has captured popular imagination in recent years.

Personally, I find the clothing element of the Yule Cat’s legend quite interesting. While there is some debate over the origins of the Yule Cat, one theory posits that the threat of being eaten by the monstrous feline developed in the 19th century was used to encourage farmers to process their wool in a timely manner. Those who completed their work received a new garment before the holidays, and those who did not meet production quotas went without. Like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the spectre of scarcity hangs heavily over these holiday legends.

Many folks feel the strain of living under capitalism, especially during this season. The holidays can feel at times like a gaudy display of consumerism, with mounting pressures to buy, buy, buy to create that “picture perfect” holiday. For those without the financial means, these pressures can be that much more acute and painful… rather akin to being mauled by a giant cat (or so I’d imagine).

Rethinking the Yule Cat in this context gave me pause, and an opportunity to reflect on rejecting brash consumerism in favor of mindful giving this holiday season. I believe that in this context the legend of the Yule Cat can also remind us of a critical element not just for a happy holiday, but for a happy life: gratitude. Finding gratitude in small moments, recognizing what we have, seems just the sort of magic to keep that ravenous Yule Cat away, sartorial choices notwithstanding.

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