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Turkeys and a Christmas Cat

by Sharron Arksey

A husband watched his young wife prepare the turkey.

“Why do you always cut it in half before putting it in the roaster?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “It is just how my mother has always done it.”

The next time she saw her mother, she asked her the same question.

“I learned it from my mother, your grandma,” was the answer.

So the young wife asked Grandma.

“I had to. It was the only way I could get a turkey to fit in my small roaster,” Grandma said.

Tis the season for turkey, but I have also heard this story with chicken and a roast of beef.

This humourous story reminds me that what we call tradition may have an origin that no longer applies. But those origins may be so far in the past that we have no one to tell us why they began.

Every Christmas Eve when I was a child, we drove to Amma’s and Afi’s to eat, sing and open gifts with the relatives on my mother’s side of the family. Our mother always made sure that we each had a new outfit to wear, that way ensuring that we looked our Christmas best in the obligatory family photos taken between dishwashing and gift opening.

When my own children were small, I tried to maintain the tradition. As they grew older and became adults themselves, however, they opted instead for comfortable clothing.

I always assumed that having a new Christmas outfit was a unique family tradition, nothing more than wanting to get dressed up for an extended family gathering.

That was before I learned about Jólakötturinn, Iceland’s Yule Cat.

According to lore, the Cat comes to family homes each Christmas. If the children have not received new clothes to wear for the holiday season, the cat eats them.

Rather a grisly death, I think, and perhaps not one easy to evade in a country as poor as Iceland at that time. If your parents didn’t have the wherewithal to give you something new for Christmas, your fate was sealed.

I have also seen a less gruesome version of the story, in which the cat eats only the dinner of those who do not have anything new to wear. An injury downgraded to an insult, you might say, but still not pleasant.

 Jólakötturinn, Iceland’s Yule Cat
Jólakötturinn, Iceland’s Yule Cat

So now I wonder about that family tradition of ours. Perhaps our Christmas outfits harkened back to the days when a display of financial wellness staved off an early death. Perhaps the new clothes we wore were all that was left of an old tradition begun long ago and an ocean away.

I will never know, but I shall always wonder.


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