Christmas Traditions in Iceland

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Summer season is said to be the busiest tourist season in the land of ice and fire and while that is true, more and more people now feel inclined towards spending the winter season in the country and take a vacation in the festival season. The recently increased craze of the fabulous nightlife of the capital city and the unique holiday and festive traditions of Iceland have made winter season relatively popular among tourists. More and more people want to spend New Year’s Eve, Christmas, and other winter festivals in the country and experience the finest nightlight lives in the world first hand. And to say that Icelanders go all out on when Christmas is concerned would be an understatement of the fact. The preparations for Advent (which marks the beginning of the arrival period of Christmas and the second coming of Christ) begins 4 weeks before Christmas and every settlement, town, and the village is on a roll from the very start.

General things apart, every single household has some traditions of its own which are unique. But every single person in the country follows a common Christmas spirit which can be seen throughout the holiday season. Shopping is a big part of these celebrations. Some people get on with things like getting tree very early in the holiday season while the other wait for a little longer to get on with the major parts. One constant thing is the fact that all the locals get into the decoration as the Advent starts and the Icelandic Santa Clauses start to come around the streets from the 11th of December. Let’s find out more about these interesting new unique traditions of Iceland which will make your holiday vacation more and more fun.

The Advent Festivities

Shopping aside, several events take place during the Advent period in Iceland. From concerts to festivals, and buffets, you will find several things to do throughout your visit to the country during the festival season. You are sure to find at least one activity that will not only suit your holiday spirit and traditions but also make Christmas extra special.

Concerts, Shows, and Music Festivals

The best musicians from all over the country come together and create fabulous Christmas programs to make the festival season extra special. Several music festivals are organized throughout December. One of the most famous music festivals held in for Christmas celebrations is Jólagestir Björgvins. Almost all well-known artists from all over the country come together and organize a concert so beautiful that it can put any of the others that you have attended before to shame. It is held in the Harpa Concert Hall of the capital city and is filled with many choirs, instrumental pieces, and songs from Icelandic singers and musicians.

The grand concerts and shows like Jólagestir Björgvins often charge an entry that will differ for every other concert. If you are not a fan of big gatherings and would rather like to enjoy an intimate show containing performances from one or two artists at a time then there will be plenty of those options available for you as well. The entry varies based on which and how big of a show you choose to attend.

To see a schedule of all the concerts and shows in Iceland, it is best to visit tix.is and check out the tickets. 

As far as smaller events are concerned which can be accessed free of cost or at least without an additional cost can be found in bars, restaurants, and pubs. Several artists make an appearance in restaurants and clubs regularly. Kex Hostel hosts an extensive program of performances throughout December which is free for anyone to access. If you are feeling particularly Christmas-y then Dómkirkjan church holds a choir performance for you to enjoy. Several Christmas markets also hold small concerts which are free to access for all. All these events are generally advertised on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram so you can easily find a suitable one for yourself.

Shopping Traditions

Several marketplaces and shops become Christmas exclusive in December while others are seasonal ones. There are plenty of things that need to be bought to decorate the house for the upcoming festival and hence every single shopping center in main towns, as well as the shopping areas in the smaller settlements, are filled with Christmas special items. Just like any other place, Christmas shopping is a separate tradition on its own.

The Buffets

The next best thing when it comes to Advent festivities is the enormous buffets with holiday special Icelandic traditional dishes. These buffets can be found all around the main towns of the country. Some of the main dishes that you will find here in these buffets include all kinds of different delicacies like a smoked lamb, smoked salmon, herring, gravlax, leaf bread, turkey, goose, ptarmigan, rye bread, and reindeer. You can count on finding hundreds of different dishes made with exclusive Icelandic ingredients that can be found in no other place.

Icelandic Santa Clauses

Yes, you read that right – it is Icelandic Santa Clauses – plural which means Iceland gets more than one Santa Clause. There is a total of 13 alleged Santa Clauses and each bears a name that represents their characteristics and unlike the Santa Claus that we are familiar with the most, Icelandic Santa Clauses are a bit naughty too. They may steal candles and sausages, peek through the windows, and slam doors. The tradition of Santa Claus leaving gifts in the stocking has its own version in Iceland where the gifts are left inside the shoes that are placed out on the porch. Although, the kids and families who have been naughty get a potato. The gift items for good kids include sweets, some kinds of toys, clothes, and candies. The tradition also says that people who do not receive any clothes by the Icelandic Santa Clauses, socks to be precise, get eaten by the ‘Christmas Cat’.

Icelandic Santa Clauses are also known by the name or term “Yule Lads”. As the legend goes, Yule lads are the sons of Gryla, a half-troll, and half-giant being. While Yule Lads are now associated with Christmas and are seen as a sort of a sanitized figures, Gryla, however, still stands as an evil giantess in the Icelandic folklore. She collects the whispers around the town about the children who are naughty and comes to collect them. She cooks them into a giant cauldron making a stew that lasts till the winter season. She has a huge black cat known as the Christmas Cat that works with her in this collection fest of naughty children. You will see huge figures of cats used in several places as decoration pieces, studded with lights and whatnot.

Yule Lads start to arrive 13 days before the night of Christmas which marks their arrival from 11 of December onwards as Christmas is celebrated on the 24th of December in Iceland. The thirteen of the Yule Lads are named as follows:

  1. Sheep-Cote Clod – named so as he tries to suckle yews in farmer’s sheep sheds.
  2. Gully Gawk who steals foam from buckets of cow milk.
  3. Stubby is a short lad who steals food from frying pans.
  4. Spoon Licker, as evident, licks spoons.
  5. Pot Scraper or Pot Licker steals and licks clean the unwashed pots.
  6. Bowl Licker steals bowls of food that Icelanders keep under the bed.
  7. Door Slammer goes around stomping and slamming doors, keeping everyone awake.
  8. Skyr Gobbler eats up all the Icelandic yogurt (skyr).
  9. Sausage Swiper loves stolen sausages.
  10. Window Peeper likes to creep outside windows peep inside the house and sometimes steal the stuff he sees.
  11. Door Sniffer has a huge nose and an appetite for stolen baked goods.
  12. Meat Hook snatches up left out meat, especially smoked lamb.
  13. Candle Beggar steals candles, which used to be a valuable item in Iceland.

Several different names have been found in the old documents, folk tales, and sagas of Iceland for the Yule Lads and all of them drive a different explanation and connotation but the above-mentioned are the ones which have been used by far the most. Christmas in Iceland lasts longer than the usual amount of time that most people are familiar with. It starts on the 11th of December as mentioned above. Each of the 13 Santa Clauses or Yule Lads arrives one by one till the 24th of December and then returns home one by one till the 6th of January. So, the official end-date for Christmas in Iceland is the 6th of January. People also celebrate the arrival of the new year during this time as well.

Winter in Reykjavik seen over Hallgrimskirkja church

Christmas Baking Traditions Around Iceland

A holiday of family and food, Christmas comes with a lot of traditional baked goods that Icelanders prefer to make themselves to keep the Christmas spirit alive. If you are worried that you will be away from home in the holiday season and won’t get to eat the signature gingerbread man cookies that your mom makes every year then be assured that you will find these and many other Christmas special delicacies made especially for the occasion. While Iceland’s most traditional dish for Christmas is fried laufabrauð (leaf bread) and Sara, you can easily find gingerbread cookies, gingerbread houses, cookies, and all kinds of confectionaries.

Sara is one of the most adored baked delights of Christmas days in Iceland. It is a chocolate cream-filled and chocolate-coated macaroon-like sweet that makes a lot of appearance in almost every single household of Iceland. You will also find these available at many bakeries, cafes, and confectionary shops. They are best served as slightly frozen.

Laufabrauð is a thin piece of dough which is carved with several unique and beautiful patterns and then deep-fried in oil. It is eaten with smoked lamb and butter and is one of the delicacies that the holiday season brings with it. The dish is quite similar to an Indian dish, ‘Papad’ or ‘Papadum’ which often served as an appetizer and a snack in Indian cuisine.

Þorláksmessa – Celebrations on the 23rd

Everything that people do on Christmas eve is done on Þorláksmessa in Iceland. Since Christmas is officially celebrated on the 24th of December in Iceland, 23rd takes on the role of Christmas eve here and carries all the anticipation, joy, and excitement that the Christmas eve is associated with Most people spend it out buying last minutes presents and wrapping them at home while spending some quality time with the family. Others who are already done with all this, choice to go out and have some fun with their family and friends. Many people also like to gather friends at home and host tree decoration parties on Þorláksmessa. Needless to say, every household has its own small traditions that they like to keep consistent every year.

These generic acts aside, there is a special tradition that Þorláksmessa follows. Skate is a traditional fish dish that is eaten on Icelandic Christmas eve. The tradition is so important that many people even say that Christmas isn’t here until you have had Skate for dinner. However, Skate is not as luxurious as it may sound. This fish actually carries a very strong stench that can set not only in the house but also in the clothes of people who are attending the dinner. So, people tend to wear their worst clothes when having a Skate dinner and keep all the windows and doors open to let the stench out, even in the cold weather of December. Then everyone takes a warm bath and change clothes before heading out to meet friends and family in the evening.

Christmas in Iceland - Yule lads in Iceland

Traditions of 24th of December

Yule or Jól starts on the 24th and then continues till 6h of January. So basically, the 24th of December marks the starting of Christmas in Iceland. People generally indulge themselves in shopping, buying, wrapping, and exchanging gifts, enjoying some snacks, taking bath, watching some shows or movies tucked inside a blanket, and enjoy a lavish meal till about 6 o’clock in the evening. That’s when the Christmas starts in Iceland. Families get together to eat the best food of the year, open their Christmas presents and spend some quality time together. The traditional choices of these meals include smoked lamb, reindeer or ptarmigan, glazed rack of ham, generally served with a salmon or seafood starter. Of course, desserts follow the dinner, and then presents are finally opened. Some people follow the tradition of the Santa Clause in the red hat and deliver presents to friends and family.

Icelanders get into the real Christmas time when the clock strikes 6 on the evening of 24th. There is a mass held at almost every church at 6 pm which many people attend. The remaining ones who do not, go to the mass that takes place at midnight.

Another Christmas tradition around Iceland is presenting books as a gift. The sales of books are so high that there is a huge increase in writing and printing of new books around the holidays. The event is known as Christmas Book Flood. City hall also hosts a free Christmas dinner to let everyone have a chance at a very lavish Christmas. It is worth checking out as well.

25th – The Christmas Day

Christmas day is all about relaxation in Iceland. People generally meet with their family members and have a huge house party that is mostly about movies, chats, board games, and food. Many people choose to have huge gatherings with their extended families which generally makes the party go up to 50 people or so.

Another very popular tradition for Christmas day in Iceland is to visit the cemetery and get one on one with the relatives that have passed on to the afterlife. People even decorate the gravestones of their family members with candles and other traditional decorative items. It is a beautiful way of showing them respect and love that runs deep within the people of Iceland. In short, Christmas is all about family and love in Iceland. If you are in for a little bit of spooky then consider visiting a cemetery during the white Christmas of Iceland as the kind of view you will find it hard to be found anywhere else.

Contrary to what it sounds like, Boxing day is is the day when people can come out of their houses and go clubbing once again. While many go out to eat and drink on Jól eve and Jól day, it is still considered a bit inappropriate to do so. Following that, Icelanders come out on Boxing day and enjoy themselves with friends, have some drinks at the bars and pubs and go dancing in the clubs. Every public joint like bars and clubs stay open till late so it is not surprising that the partying run for long on Boxing day.

Christmas in Iceland - Yule lads in Iceland - santa claus standing in front of the glacier lagoon

Þrettándinn

After all the festivities, finally, come the day when the last yule lad has returned home to their cave. This day is known as Þrettándinn or ‘the thirteenth’. The English version of Christmas knows this day as ‘the twelfth night’. The day is celebrated with bonfires and delicious food all around the land of fire and ice. Some people also finish up the leftovers from their New Year’s Day celebration as the Þrettándinn falls on the 6th of January. Fireworks that don’t make it to the sky on New Year’s celebration ends the show on Þrettándinn finally.

The holiday season in Iceland has a completely different vibe but carries the same underlying concept of spreading love and happiness. Spending Christmas in Iceland is a great way to get one on one with unfamiliar traditions and eccentrically enjoy your time. With unknown rituals, ways, and events, Iceland Christmas traditions are sure to take you by surprise but will make your decision to spend holidays in the country of ice and fire one of the soundest decisions that you ever make. Happy Holidays!

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