Iceland’s Christmas Monsters

Iceland's Christmas Monsters

Most people have heard of Santa’s more terrifying European counterparts, like the Austrian Krampus or the French Père Fouettard, but did you know that Iceland has its own cast of winter monsters?

Modern Iceland is one of the few European countries whose residents still believe (to some extent) in the existence of elves and fairies, known as the Huldufólk. (I heard a great explanation for the continued belief while traveling in Ireland, where certain trees are still considered “fairy trees” that should never be touched: the fairies might not be real, but my grandfather and his grandfather and his grandfather never touched that tree stump, so why risk it?)  And wouldn’t life feel more magical and mysterious if we all believed that there were still creatures out there that we didn’t know much about?

In Iceland, this continued belief even goes so far as to alter building projects and road work, since the Huldufólk don’t like people to encroach on their land.  But their presence in modern Icelandic culture is one of the things that makes this isolated country so unique and beautiful.

In particular, several of these beings relate to the Christmas season, so what better time to learn about them?

GrýlaGrýla is a giantess from the Prose Edda, the 13th-century compilation of Icelandic mythology and legends written by Snorri Sturluson and one of our main surviving sources of Old Norse.  Over time, Grýla became associated with the Christmas season, when she finds misbehaving children and turns them into stew.  She is also the mother of the 13 Jólasveinarnir, or Yule Lads.

The Jólasveinarnir are usually depicted as more innocent mischief-makers, Actors portraying the Yule Ladsalthough in some early legends they kidnapped children just like their mother.  Today, though, children leave out an empty shoe for the 13 days before Christmas; if they had been well-behaved, they would receive a small present or candy from one troll each night.

Grýla also owns  Jólakötturinn, or the Yule Cat, a huge black cat that also likes to eat people.  One Icelandic tradition is that anyone who finishes all of their work for the year receives a new piece of clothing to wear on Christmas; the lazy people who didn’t finish in time and had to wear their old clothes would then be eaten by Jólakötturinn.  A 1987 song based on Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s poem tells the legend of Jólakötturinn (see the video below).

Iceland’s rich tradition of folklore includes many other fascinating characters.  I’d love to learn more about other Christmas legends; can any of them compete with Grýla gruesome family?

Christmas in Japan

Christmas in Japan

Given the relatively low number of Christians and European immigrants in Japan, it may be surprising that the country has its own thriving Christmas traditions.  Although Christmas doesn’t have the same religious connotation as it does in other countries, it is quite a popular holiday in modern Japan.

Traditionally Styled NengajoChristmas falls right in between several other national holidays in Japan, namely the current emperor’s birthday (天皇誕生日, Tennō tanjōbi) on December 23 and New Year’s (正月, Shōgatsu), which spans December 31-January 4 and is arguably the most important holiday of the year.  The end of the year in Japan traditionally involves gift exchanges and time with family, as well as a letter called a nengajō (年賀状) similar to a family Christmas card in the US.  Therefore, it was very easy to incorporate some Christmas themes into the traditional Japanese end-of-year celebrations.

Roppongi Christmas Lights: staples of the season like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and holiday lights are popular in Japan.  However, Christmas Eve receives far more attention in Japan: it’s a romantic holiday like Valentine’s Day in America, where couples spend time together, stroll through the decorated public light displays, and have dinner at a fancy restaurant.

Japanese Christmas CakeChristmas Day in Japan famously involves Kentucky Fried Chicken, thanks to a 1974 marketing campaign advertising “Kentucky for Christmas!”  Also popular is Christmas Cake, a strawberry sponge cake known around the world because of its inclusion on the Apple emoji keyboard 🍰.

Overall, Christmas in Japan is one aspect of the festive end-of-year season rather than the major holiday celebrated abroad.  Nevertheless, Japan has a thriving and unique set of holiday traditions not too different from what we see in the US and Europe.


SPS/German Club Crossover

SPS/German Club Crossover

As with the past two years, I have remained a member of the OU German club.  I really like its style of casual meetings where students can practice their conversation skills, but as I’ve gotten more and more experienced with German, I’ve struggled to find partners at these events who can carry on a full conversation with me.  And unfortunately, my busy schedule doesn’t always allow me to attend the Stammtisch events.  That’s why this semester, I was really excited to help organize the second annual Society of Physics Students and German Club crossover event!

There has always been a strong correlation between physics majors and the German department; for those who don’t already start out in both departments, a majority of students seem to choose German to fulfill their foreign language requirement; many then go on to add a minor or second major in German.  It’s always fun to walk into the study rooms in the physics building and hear people practicing their German skills together.

This year, we were lucky enough to coordinate with Dr. Schwettmann, a German professor in the physics department.  He gave us a tour of his research lab and a lecture of fun and simple physics demos, all conducted in German.  Afterwards, a physics student gave a presentation on his recent internship in Germany.

Historically, Germany has always been at the forefront of the physics world.  It’s always really fun for me to combine my two majors, and an event like this helps me find other people who are interested in both languages and physics!  But beware: as Dr. Schwettmann told us, German has some false cognates for common physics terms: German “Impuls” is English momentum, and English impulse is German “Kraftstoss”!

In the future, I hope that these two clubs can continue to host crossover events.

German Opportunities Fair

German Opportunities Fair

Once again, this year’s Germany Week included multiple really helpful and exciting events.  Aside from Trivia Night, the German department also collaborated with experts from across OU to hold the German Opportunities Fair.  Students could get information on studying abroad in Germany, applying for a Fulbright in Germany or Austria, finding an internship through Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), or continuing to graduate studies in German at OU.

As far as I know, none of the other foreign language departments has a similar all-encompassing event where students can explore so many options at once.  And since many professors required students to attend at least one of the Germany Week events, many students came to the Opportunities Fair.

Personally, I enjoyed talking to both professors with expertise in various programs and students who had completed the internships I was considering.

Here is some more information on the various programs discussed at the Opportunities Fair for anyone interested!


DAAD/German Academic Exchange Service: federally-funded grants for study abroad and research abroad programs.  The DAAD RISE program offers STEM summer internships across Germany, where undergraduates assist a graduate student on their research topic.

Fulbright in Germany: funding for a year of graduate study, independent research, or work as an English teacher abroad.  Fulbright programs are offered around the world, although different countries offer slightly different programs.

OU Education Abroad: exchange programs for undergraduates through OU.  German language proficiency depends on which country and program you choose.

OU Master’s Degree in German:

Germany, Making Choices: Trivia Night

Germany, Making Choices: Trivia Night

Just because the OU German department is small doesn’t mean we don’t have fun activities each semester!  This year, OU  hosted Germany Week, a series of events designed to promote the language and department.  One of those was a German-themed trivia night, where teams of 8-10 students worked together to answer five rounds of questions.

One of the reasons why this event was such a success was the variety of topics and difficulties covered over the course of the event.  Although most students were German majors or minors, the questions weren’t about German vocabulary or grammar, making it easy for students of all levels to cooperate.  Some questions related to famous historical figures like Goethe and Beethoven; others covered modern German television and music; a bonus round asked us to name all 16 states on a numbered map of Germany.  In the end, all of the teams had extremely tight scores; my team won by only two points.

Overall, this event was a great example of how a small department can host a really exciting and inclusive game night.  I really enjoyed spending the evening with my German professors and classmates, and coming home with a bar of Ritter Sport chocolate is always great!  In the future, I look forward to attending more German-sponsored events like this one.

Your Mom Was Right: Act Like a Grown-Up and Say Thank You

Your Mom Was Right: Act Like a Grown-Up and Say Thank You

No matter how experienced a traveler you are, one of the biggest issues when planning to study abroad is funding. Plane tickets, housing, food, travel expenses, and visas can all add up to a considerable amount of money. I’d like to take this moment to say that there are a lot of different sources of funding, both from your university and from external sources. Always talk to your professors, especially ones in the foreign language department, because they often know about scholarships for your specific study abroad destination.

If you get a scholarship, that’s great! People are handing you money, what’s not to love? But in the excitement of being able to pay for your time abroad, don’t forget the people that made your experiences possible. With scholarships and grants come the responsibility to meet the organizations’ or sponsors’ requests as well as to show your gratitude for all of their support.

I was fortunate enough to receive a substantial scholarship from Delta Phi Alpha, the National German Honor Society. Upon returning, I wrote them a report summarizing my experiences as well as thanking them for their generosity. This sort of essay really means a lot to the people who receive it; it shows that you are truly grateful for their support, and that their money wasn’t taken for granted.

Here is a link to my report on the Delta Phi Alpha website:

In short: funding is out there if you take the time to look for it, and if you do receive any, make sure to show your gratitude!

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 2

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 2

I am a strong believer in only eating all-natural foods. Artificial coloring, preservatives, even so-called “natural” flavors are big no-nos with serious health effects. I’m didn’t just jump on a health-food bandwagon; there is real science that shows our bodies aren’t designed to handle all those chemical additives. Organic food is what humans evolved to eat; all those extra unpronounceable ingredients really do cause cancer and neurological disorders and all other sorts of problems, and yet here in America we gobble them down without a second thought. Organic and all-natural options are hard to find and usually come with a hefty price tag.

Fresh Milk Machine in Ljubljana
The ultimate example of organic food in Europe: the milk dispenser in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a high-tech machine that provides extremely cheap, fresh, local milk. Liter-sized bottles to dispense the milk into are also available for about a euro.

In Europe, organic and all-natural food is readily available and cheap. Even the Walgreens-style drugstore had entire shelves full of all-natural shampoo, soap, and conditioner; at home, I have to visit Natural Grocers or order it online. Not everything is all-natural, but the percentage of food that I could eat was so much higher than in the US.

In addition, and also in direct correlation, to this, weight extremes are a much smaller problem in Europe than in America. Some people were very overweight, and some people were far too skinny, yet I never saw either of the extremes that are fairly common in America. Grocery stores don’t provide electric scooters, and I never saw a girl with such stick-thin legs than I worried she wouldn’t actually be able to walk on them.

The difference isn’t only in what Europeans tend to eat: they also are far more active as a part of their daily routines. In the US, everyone owns a car and drives everywhere; exercise is something we do in the evening or on the weekends in order to “stay fit.” In Europe, people walk to the grocery store and then carry their heavy bags home, and take a bus or train and then walk a few blocks to work. Of course people still lift weights and run in the park and bike on the weekends, but their daily lives are already less sedentary than ours are. This level of constant, non-strenuous activity keeps them extremely fit for their whole lives; I regularly saw tiny 90-year-old ladies slowly but competently make their way through the supermarket and then get on the tram to go home.

After my observations in Europe, I wouldn’t say that either America or Europe is healthier than the other; we simply have focused our negative health habits in different areas. Europeans smoke a ton but are also more active and eat healthier food; Americans are more wary of cigarettes but drive everywhere and eat bright blue cake. Is one better than the other? Maybe not, but by combining both sets of health ideologies, it’s possible to have the best of both health worlds. All we have to do is commit to being truly healthy.

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 1

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 1

One of the most difficult things for me to adjust to about living in Austria wasn’t the language or the public transportation or the frustratingly limited opening hours of supermarkets. No, one of the hardest things for me to deal with was the omnipresence of people smoking.

I have always been extremely sensitive to strong smells; even the perfume in most shampoos and hand lotions is too strong and chemically for me to withstand. But cigarette smoke has always been one of the hardest things for me to deal with; I can’t breathe with it nearby, and it gives me an instant, piercing headache.

I had read before that Europe has a higher concentration of heavy smokers than America does, but I didn’t really understand what that would be like until I was in Austria. Cigarettes and smoke were everywhere: every bus and tram stop had a perpetually full ashtray, outdoor seating at restaurants smelled more of smoke than of food, and the entryway to every store was an impossible gauntlet of unbreathable air.

There wasn’t much I could do about any of it, except look for restaurants with non-smoking rooms and practice my shallow breathing skills. That, and silently judge all the people around me who didn’t seem to care that cigarettes are, you know, lethal. At least in America, we have a lot of laws and taxes and educational programs in place to prevent such rampant smoking. At least we care about our health, right?

But then I stopped myself. Yes, cigarettes are terrible and kill people. Yes, from my experience, fewer Americans smoke than Europeans. But Americans aren’t really any more health conscious than our neighbors across the pond; we just focus our health problems in different fields. What are Europeans doing right that we should emulate? See part 2 of my blog post :)

Where Did You Go, Austria?

Where Did You Go, Austria?

In the last few decades, there’s been a lot of noise about the US’s decline as a world superpower. According to a lot of studies, we aren’t really #1 in anything anymore, except for the average cost of healthcare. And while I may not be a political science major, and I tend to look on the bright side of life instead of obsessing about such large-scale issues, I would like to say: yeah, our membership in the Big Important Countries Club might be coming to an end.

For those people who think that such a dramatic decline would be impossible: may I direct your attention to a tiny country in Europe called Austria.

Size Comparison

In my experience, most people don’t think of Austria very quickly when they talk about Europe. It’s fairly small and doesn’t have the international fame of the larger countries like Germany, France, Spain, and the UK; when I told people about my study abroad plans, quite a few people barely knew where Austria was or thought I was going to Australia for a semester.

Even compared to other European countries, Austria is pretty small at 32,000 square miles and a population 8.7 million people; Germany is about 138,000 square miles with 82.6 million people.

For further comparison, my home state of Colorado is 104,000 square miles and has a population of 5.5 million people! The map on the right shows Europe, with Colorado overlaid for a scale comparison.

dissolution_of_austria-hungaryAnd yet, Austria had one of the largest empires in Europe only a century ago. I like numbers a lot, so let me lay some important ones out here: the Habsburg Monarchy, as it was nicknamed, ruled largely uninterrupted from 1521-1918. In the 1800s, when the name “Austrian Empire” was officially used, it had the third largest population out of any empire in the world, after Russia and France, and the second largest geographic empire after Russia.

So what happened? How did one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world shrink to a background country the size of Pennsylvania?

Well, there was that little event called World War I. Even though we mostly study Germany’s involvement and how it led to World War II, it was the assassination of the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that instigated the war. (For my favorite comedic 2-minute refresher on the causes of WWI, watch this video: Frightful First World War Causes of WW1) As a result, the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919 dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

And in the century since then, Austria has largely faded from the geographic and political scene. It’s often only mentioned in passing–usually in the context of the aforementioned assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Maria Theresa’s reformations in the 17o0s, or The Sound of Music. That’s a far cry from being one of the most powerful and important countries in all of Europe.

Yes, WWI caused an unprecedented amount of political upheaval in a very short amount of time. No, I’m not saying that the US will be dissolved into 50 independent states in a similarly short amount of time. But Austria really did lose that Big Important Countries Club membership card; what’s to say that the US won’t as well?