Jólasveinar first appeared in the 17th century as the sons of Grýla and Leppalúði, who themselves had appeared in the 13th century and had earned a reputation for stealing and eating naughty children.
The Jólasveinar were tallied at either nine or thirteen, but their names are at least 70.
Thirteen of the most commonly accepted names of the Jólasveinar are:
December 12th Stekkjarstaur - Gimpy
A few of the other names used for the Jólasveinar follow, along with English translations. Their names are descriptive of their natures.
Baggi - Bundle
As can be seen from the names, the Jólasveinar are thought of as playful imps whose main interest seems to be getting their hands on some of the seasonal food and other goodies, or lurking about trying to do some minor mischief.
When they first appeared the Jólasveinar had many of the attributes of their parents but soon started to seem milder. In the last century they gained some of the attributes of their Nordic counterparts, and in this century have become homegrown versions of St. Nick or Santa Clauses.
The Jólasveinar live in the mountains and start to arrive in town, one a day, thirteen days before Christmas Eve with the last one arriving that morning. They leave little presents for the children in shoes the children have placed on the windowsill the night before. If the children have been naughty, they leave a potato or some other reminder that good behaviour is better. They start departing for home again on Christmas Day, with the last one departing on Þrettándinn.
At first the clothing of the Jólasveinar was just the ordinary, every-day wear of the common Icelander. In this century they have taken to wearing the traditional red suits of St. Nick or Santa Claus. In the last few years there has been a revival of the old style clothing.
This pair of child-eating, bloodthirsty ogres are the supposed parents of the Jólasveinar. The dominant member in the relationship is Grýla, who according to some sources had another husband before Leppalúði. His name was Boli. Boli, and later Leppalúði, were bedridden and Grýla went around the countryside begging to support her husbands. At Christmas time she stole children who had been naughty during the year. Through the centuries Grýla has been a very popular means of making children behave. There are numerous lays and stories about Grýla and her exploits, but she never really gets her hands on the children. Either they have been very well behaved throughout the year or they manage to escape.