Each culture has its own Christmas traditions, stories, and myths. But what about a giant cat that eats you if you don’t have new clothes? Meet Jólakötturin — the Yule Cat.

Most Christmas traditions are benign and nice; after all, ’tis the season to be jolly. However, in Iceland, stories follow a more distinctive line.  The story of the Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, originated at some point during the Dark Ages, though the oldest written accounts are from the 19th century. The story goes like this:

In Medieval Iceland, employers rewarded their employees and members of their household with new clothes and sheepskin shoes. The gifts were made as a reward for a year of hard work and as a motivator to finish the work before Christmas — particularly processing the autumn wool. Here’s the thing, though: if you didn’t have new clothes for Christmas, the dreaded Yule Cat would come out and eat you — and this was no ordinary cat.

It towers above the tallest buildings, prancing around Iceland looking for people without new clothes. It especially looks for children and inspects them to see if they have new garments. If they were too lazy to earn them, the unfortunate children might just end up on the menu of the Yule Cat.

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However, another way to make sure Jólakötturinn doesn’t get you is to be generous. You don’t necessarily have to wear new clothes yourself — if you gifted new clothes to the less fortunate, the Yule cat will leave you alone.

In some versions of the story, the Yule cat doesn’t eat the people, only their food and presents — which still sounds like a nasty creature.

It’s still traditional in Iceland to give children a little something new to wear before Christmas “so that the Christmas cat doesn’t get you” — although, of course, no one really believes in its literal existence.

Here is a famous poem by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, one of Iceland’s most beloved poets, describing the beast:

You know the christmas cat
– that cat is very large
We dont know where he came from
nor where he has gone
He opened his eyes widely
glowing both of them
it was not for cowards
to look into them
His hair sharp as needles
his back was high and bulgy and claws on his hairy paw
were not a pretty sight
Therefore the women competed
to rock and sow and spin
and knitted colorful clothes
or one little sock
For the cat could not come
and get the little children
they had to get new clothes
from the grownups
When christmas eve was lighted
and the cat looked inside
the children stood straight and red-cheeked
with their presents
He waved his strong tail
he jumped, scratched and blew
and was either in the valley
or out on the headland
He walked about, hungry and mean
in hurtfully cold christmas snow
and kindled the hearts with fear
in every town
If outside one heard a weak “meaow”
then unluck was sure to happen
all knew he hunted men
and didnt want mice
He followed the poorer people
who didnt get any new clothing
near christmas – and tried and lived
in poorest conditions
From them he took at the same time
all their christmas food
and ate them also themselves
if he could
Therefore the women competed
to rock and sow and spin
and knitted colorful clothes
or one little sock Some had gotten an apron
and some had got a new shoe
or anything that was needful
but that was enough
For pussy should not eat no-one
who got some new piece of clothes
She hissed with her ugly voice
and ran away
If she still exists I dont know
but for nothing would be his trip
if everybody would get next christmas
some new rag
You may want to keep it in mind
to help if there is need
for somewhere there might be children
who get nothing at all
Mayhaps that looking for those who suffer
from lack of plentiful lights
will give you a happy season
and merry christmas.