Discover Iceland's Elf School and learn about the mysterious Huldufólk

Come close, while I tell you a tale.

One frosty winter day in the northern wilds of Iceland, a young lad was sent by his mother to help out at the next farm. But darkness fell, a blizzard raged and the poor lad got lost.

Cold, hungry and tired, he came across a little house, knocked on the door and a kindly, but short, couple invited him in.

Everything inside was primitive, but the little lady brought him some dry clothes, which he recognised from a school trip to a folklore museum. She saw the boy’s confusion and said ‘we are elves, we are the hidden people, but don’t worry, we won’t do you any harm.’

After a hot meal, the lad fell asleep until morning, when the couple fed him and off he went. Unsure whether he’d dreamed it all, the lad followed his footsteps back in the snow but the house had vanished.

That boy is now 69 years old, lives in Reykjavik and is just one of the 1,400 elf witnesses Magnus Skarphedinsson, headmaster of Iceland’s Elf School, has interviewed.

‘I collect stories about paranormal experiences, ghosts and spirits, and while I’ve never seen them myself, I’m convinced that elves and hidden people, or huldufólk, do exist,’ says Skarphedinsson, who has spent 34 years studying the phenomenon, meeting witnesses and collating their stories for his school (which he set up because so many locals and tourists would ask him about elves, knowing his fascination with the subject).

According to him, elves and hidden people – a bigger type of elf – live and look much like humans. There are around 15 types of elves in Iceland. The smallest are the flower elves, at not much more than an inch, while hidden people can be up to 3ft.

‘I’ve met more than 900 Icelanders and 500 people from 40 other countries who claim to have seen elves and other nature spirits,’ says Skarphedinsson. ‘And the only thing these people have in common is that they’re psychic, they have a sixth sense.’

A 2007 study by the University of Iceland showed that 62 per cent of Icelanders believe elves and hidden people exist.

But you won’t find gangs of rosy-cheeked imps roaming around the back streets of Reykjavik – they exist in a different dimension and are only seen by those with psychic ability, of which in Iceland one in 20 claims to have such intuition.

‘Icelanders have a deep friendship with the elves and hidden people,’ says Skarphedinsson. ‘If somebody is lost in the wild, the hidden people would give them shelter. If people are starving, they will give them food. If they are sick, they will cure them. There are countless times the Icelandic people have been helped by the hidden people.’

But contrary to popular belief, Icelandic elves are not related to Santa’s crew in the North Pole, although it is customary to leave food out for the hidden people on Christmas Eve. No, Christmas traditions in Iceland are generally reserved for the Yule Lads.

According to legend, Yule Lads are a bunch of wide boys each with a different mischief and a name like Door Slammer and Spoon Licker. From December 12 to 24, children leave their shoes by their windows and, one by one, the 13 Yule Lads come down from the mountains to leave presents in them (or old potatoes if they’ve been naughty). However, the elves do have a connection with New Year’s Eve.

‘It’s when they move location,’ says Skarphedinsson. ‘I’ve met people who’ve seen elves move house at midnight on New Year’s Eve.’

It’s also said elves make themselves visible to humans on Twelfth Night and Icelanders celebrate this with a bonfire festival called Þrettándinn.

‘The Elf School is everything that is known about elves – what they look like, where they live and how this friendship has evolved through centuries,’ says Skarphedinsson.

Popular with visitors from the US, Canada, the UK and Germany, he reckons more than 10,000 people have ‘graduated’ from Elf School since its founding.

Open on Fridays only, the school day lasts four hours with a break for tea and pancakes (made from a special hidden people recipe, of course) and all elf students receive a certificate.

Infused by Skarphedinsson’s abundant, twinkly-eyed enthusiasm, we can only imagine anyone who comes away still cynical about elves is simply a cotton-headed ninny muggins.

Attending Elf School in Reykjavik costs £50 (€56), including tea and pancakes, theelfschool.com. Iceland is on the UK travel corridor list.

You can still meet Santa!

Even if you can’t get to Lapland this winter, Santa and his elves will be making an appearance at Lapland UK, in Whitmoor Forest, Berkshire.

At this Covid-safe, multi-award-winning theatrical immersive festive experience, you’ll meet the Toy Factory Elves, peek into Mother Christmas’s kitchen and help decorate gingerbread, go skating on the frozen pond and discover the secrets of how the Elven civilisation celebrate their traditional Christmas.

Running until January 10, 2021, tickets from £75 (for an adult and a child), laplanduk.co.uk

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