Feline Friday: The Yule Cat

Feline Friday is my chance to celebrate famous cats across the arts, whether their origins are in gaming, film, anime, literature or anywhere else.

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First Appearance: Unknown (written records date back to 19th century)

The festive season is known for a myriad of legendary figures; some benevolent, some very, very malicious.

When I was growing up, the greatest consequence for December misdeeds would be a lump of coal in my stocking. In the Alpine region, the threat of Krampus kept children on the straight and narrow. For Icelanders, a Christmas haul absent of appropriate swag could result in being eaten by a giant fucking cat.

With origins that allegedly trace back to the Dark Ages (but records only existing as early as the 19th century), the Yule Cat is a fearsome, enormous feline with a passion for fashion. If kids opened all of their presents, only to find that they didn’t receive a single item of warm clothing, the vindictive beast would hunt them down and devour them whole.

Which seems a bit unfair, as it really puts the onus on the people around you to prevent such a fate. But hey, I’m sure the woolly hat lobbyists were onboard.

Jólakötturinn is most famously known via a menacing poem from author Jóhannes úr Kötlum, which has such passages as “he opened his eyes widely, glowing both of them” and “all knew he hunted men, and didn’t want mice”. Despite his peril, Icelanders still see fit to erect effigies in his glorious image, perhaps in an effort to appease his vanity.

In fairness, it does look pretty chilly out there | Visit Reykjavík

He is supposedly the house pet of fellow Icelandic legend Grýla and her brood; a greedy giant beggar who demands the lives of children as suitable alms. The fact that she has a rogue cat gobbling up kids on the side is a bit counterproductive to her goals, but as near as I can tell, the Yule Cat is just kind of a fickle asshole. It adds up that he would be cutting into her profits.

Under more mild retellings, the snarling beast would instead punish kids who didn’t abide by its rules by merely snacking on their Christmas treats. Obviously, this is a lesser penalty, albeit one that implies that families without the fiscal means to clothe their children will also be unable to feed them, thanks to one pesky cat with a strange sense of moral justice.

Overall, Christmas must be a stressful time to be a kid in Iceland. Beyond Grýla and her greedy puss, there is a further batch of 13 troublemakers known as the Yule Lads that each dish out their own brand of mischief. Many of them stick around until well into the New Year, too, which makes them somewhat similar to Christmas casuals hired during the retail peak period.

This is just Sami at 5am every morning | PBS

Though úr Kötlum’s poem suggests that mitigating Jólakötturinn murders is perhaps an opportunity to help those in need, reporter Haukur S. Magnússon once offered alternative insight, stating, “this is one of the reasons that Icelanders clock in more hours of overtime at their jobs than most European nations: to avoid the cat, we stayed up sewing or knitting in the olden days, and we stayed up graphic designing or stock-brokering in early 2008”.

Another reminder that wicked corporations will employ any manner of dastardly, underhanded tactics in order to maximise their profit margin, including but not limited to large, ravenous Christmas cats. Should you run afoul of the Yule Cat this year, maybe you can question his callous obsession for industry. Alternatively, memorise this handy phrase, and he just may spare you: “Vinsamlegast ekki éta mig, vondi kötturinn.”

As near as I can tell, this is Icelandic for, “please don’t eat me, you evil cat”, which sets the new standard for weirdest sentence I have used Google Translate for. Happy holidays!

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