The Yule Cat

I've grown tired of hearing the same old Christmas stories from the westernised Christian tradition. Sure, they're comfortable and familiar, but they're geting old (okay, I know; it's me that's getting old). Maybe you're the type of person who gains enough of a nostalgia buzz to want the same tales every time. I doubt it. That's not the type of person who reads blogs headed with terms like vivisection.

This Christmas, I've found out about the Icelandic Yule tradition of Jólaköttur, the Yule Cat. You can read a little about him over at Yule in Iceland. There's a poem written about the Yule Cat by Jóhannes úr Kötlum and translated into English by Vignir Jónsson. After seeing his translation, I felt the urge to rewrite the translation in a structured form. (Apologies to my Icelandic readers. For them, this will be one of the same old Christmas stories they've heard year after year. I can only hope that hints of an irreverent Aussie voice showing through will add freshness.)

The Yule Cat: have you never heard?
A huge cat, yes indeed,
And no one's worked out where he hides
Or where his trail might lead.

He opens wide his glaring eyes,
Evil, cruel, intense.
(Are any game to meet his gaze?
More guts have they than sense.)

His whiskers bristle, bold & sharp,
His back an arching curve;
His hairy paws with hateful claws
Are horrors to observe.

His snaking tail, his sudden leaps,
His snarl you can't ignore,
Padding through the peaceful glens
Or prowling by the shore.

He wanders, ravenous and wild
Through winter's snow severe.
And even now inside at night
His name inspires fear.

A trembling mewl, a timid yowl
Should turn your blood to ice.
The wicked Yule Cat waits for us!
He wastes no time with mice.

The poor who score no proud new clothes,
Fall prey to this fell beast
At Yule; he targets those who toil,
The tragic, having least.

From such he steals the festive meal
Their sumptuous feast, complete.
Then munches it in greedy maws
(As much as he can eat).

And that is why so willingly
The women all devote
Their time to spinning coloured cloth
To craft a shirt or coat.

Because we can't allow the Cat
To catch those we hold dear,
Each child must get a clothing gift
From grown-ups every year.

On Yule Eve when the lights are lit
He looks in vain to dine
For all the children eagerly
Put on their garments fine.

And some get socks or gloves or pants,
A scarf, a tie, a hat,
A thick new vest, some thing to wear
To thwart the lurking cat.

For new things giv'n to wear, you know,
Deny him of his prey,
So hissing at the evening, he,
Still hungry, slinks away.

You wonder if this wild thing lives,
But we've no need to care
If every son and daughter should
Get something new to wear.

By now you'll think it's natural to
Ignore the Yule Cat's greed,
But look around; there's lots of kids
Whose lives are stalked by need.

If you can help the hapless folk
For whom this world is cruel,
You'll share a meal of memories on
Each Merry, Merry Yule.

(I'll have to edit this poem to iron out the unholy mix of modern and archaic idioms.)


Thank you so much for this new translation. Each year about this time I search in vain for new information about the Yule Cat, and each year sadly, an inexplicably, there is little to be found. One would think with all the cat-worshippers on the Internet, there would be more people interested in celebrating the festive feline of the North. Anyway, I was excited to read your poem, particularly since I saw immediately that it can be sung either to the tune of O Little Town of Bethlehem or It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, giving me some new and interesting options for Christmas Caroling. OK, I must go back to my spinning and knitting now. Thanks again, Virge!

I just discovered the legend of the Yule Cat at, a site dedicated to celebrating the winter solstice. Like you, I found the English translation to be rather clunky. Yours is much better. I am working on my own version now. I don't read Icelandic, but I know folks who do (I'm in Minnesota, USA).

I have found some citations that say the Yule Cat is used to scare lazy kids. I suppose that's sort of like saying that if you are not good, Santa will not bring you any presents. Though being chewed up by a big white cat certainly is a terrible fate. I prefer the interpretation implied in the poem's original translation, which you affirm--that the responsbility for clothing poor children should like with all of us.

Merry Solstice!


Thanks Kristina and Aloysius.
I'm glad to hear that there are others who want to preserve Yule traditions that have been squeezed out by the dominant western Christian+consumer culture. Let's fight the Christmas intertia.

I've taken another Icelandic story this year: The Dance at Hruni:
(Although it has a distinct lack of cats.)