Book Review: Christmas is Coming by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (Trans by Hallberg Hallmundsson)

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Something festive this way comes: classic collection of verse reintroduced figures from Icelandic folklore.

In the early 1930s Icelandic literature was undergoing a golden age. Having gained independence in 1918 the country was experiencing an emboldened sense of self identity which was expressed throughout the arts. An age of introspection and exploration that saw the country’s writers and artists reinterpret Icelandic heritage from a nationalistic perspective.

Possibly influenced by adult literature’s coming of age, children’s fiction began to exhibit greater sophistication and spoke to a nation that although primarily dependent upon agriculture and fisheries for its sustainability was taking tentative steps towards urbanisation and consumerism.

Into this age of transition Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s seminal seasonal text Christmas is Coming was published. First issued in 1932 the text reintroduced Icelandic society to figures from pre-Christian Nordic Yuletide folklore albeit in a slightly sanitised form more palatable to early twentieth century readers.

An alternative to Father Christmas, according to Icelandic folklore children’s homes are visited by elves over a number of nights leading up to the Yuletide festival. Until the publication of Christmas is Coming the precise number of elves and individual characteristics varied regionally. Malign and occasionally murderous figures traditionally used to scare children into behaving were transformed by Jóhannes úr Kötlum into mischievous elves. Fixing the number of Yule Lads at thirteen each was given a distinct personality.

In modern Icelandic society children are told that Yule Lads will visit homes leaving gifts or rotting potatoes depending on their behaviour. Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s verse was written at a time when agriculture was the dominant industry and in his poem the elves play a series of pranks upon farmers homes.

This seasonal bestseller remains in print and is now available in English. The collection also includes The Ballad of Grýla the tale of an ogre who feasts on badly behaved children and The Christmas Cat a dark account of a terrifying feline who prowls around Iceland looking for children wearing old clothes because she is unable to eat infants that are wearing new garments.

Providing an invaluable glimpse at the birth of modern Icelandic festive traditions, Christmas is Coming is a macabre and impish collection.

Christmas is Coming is available to order from Amazon.