There's a raging blizzard and the landscape is a total whiteout. The fierce wind is building mountains of snow and ice, and the sky is heavy with dark clouds. The only sign of life in the frozen wilderness is a figure trudging through the snow dragging a weighty sack. The figure makes no trail or leaves any footsteps because the snow is covering all traces as it passes by.
Something is moving in the sack, but the figure takes no notice. On and on it trudges through the snow, dragging the burden behind it. Nothing else is moving in the vast whiteness. There is just this dark shape battling against the elements, moving determinedly through the frozen world.
This is Gryla, the Ogress of Iceland, returning home after one of her gruesome trips to some far-off village. Gryla lives in the mountains of Iceland with her fiendish Christmas cat, her troll husband and her gang of 13 sons. But more about them later. Gryla is hideous with her deformed face and claw-like hands, and very few humans who have actually seen her have lived to tell the tale.
The two words 'naughty' and 'nice' take on an extra meaning in Iceland during Christmas time. Every child knows that Gryla, with her excellent sense of hearing, can detect children who misbehave in the run-up to Christmas. When she discovers a very naughty child, there is a real danger that Gryla will come and carry him or her off to her cave in the mountains. Gryla's favourite food is boiled human youngster, and she has a very big pot.
Gryla's habit of devouring naughty children is very convenient for the ogress, as there is never a shortage of food in the weeks before Christmas. It's also handy for parents, as they can use her as a threat to make sure their children are well behaved throughout December.
Now it's time to meet Gryla's 13 sons, the Yule Lads of Christmas. Fortunately, the ogress' offspring have not inherited their mother's evil character or her Yuletide eating habits. But the Yule Lads are far from perfect. They will steal anything they can get their hands on. But they also give out gifts to well-mannered kids. The Yule Lads are not all bad.
In the 13 days leading up to Christmas, the Yule Lads travel down one by one from the mountains into the villages and towns of Iceland. They used to steal only food, but recently they have developed a liking for computers and mobile phones. Icelandic kids keep a very watchful eye on their gear as Christmas approaches.
The Yule Lads have names like 'Sausage Stealer', 'Spoon Licker' and 'Door Slammer'. One of the Lads is called 'Peeper', because he stares into people's windows when they think they are alone.
Nobody has ever actually seen a Yule Lad, but all Icelanders know that they are prowling around in the weeks before Christmas.
Every Icelandic boy and girl places a shoe on the windowsill of their bedroom 13 nights in a row leading up to Christmas Eve. If he or she has been good, there will often be a sweet or small gift in the shoe when morning comes.
If the child has been badly behaved during the day, the shoe will be empty or there will be a potato or a rock inside.
The Yule Lads know who to reward and who to warn as Christmas gets nearer.
Back in 1746, a public decree was issued in Iceland banning parents from telling their kids the legend of Gryla and the Yule Lads in the run-up to Christmas.
But it takes more than a piece of paper and a law to stop a legend, and Gryla and the Yule Lads are still very much around in the Land of Ice as Christmas approaches.
1 Is Iceland in the Arctic or the Antarctic?
2 From the story, pick out another word for 'Christmas'.
3 How many Yule Lads are there?
4 What is the name of their mother, and what is her favourite food at Christmas time?
5 What do Icelandic children leave on a windowsill each night in the run-up to Christmas?
6 What did a decree in 1746 try to ban and why?
1. The Arctic.
2. 'Yule' or 'Yuletide'. It is an old word and is not used much today.
4. Gryla; she likes to devour naughty kids.
5. An empty shoe.
6. The decree tried to ban the legend of Gryla and the Yule Lads because it was too frightening to be told to children.