Christmas usually consists of classic traditions and religious celebrations, most commonly represented with Santa and his 9 reindeer flying around the world and delivering presents to everyone, as you sleep at night; but let’s face it we as Icelanders like to do things a little different from the rest.
In Iceland, Christmas traditions are a big part of the festivities, they make Christmas the unbelievable time that it is. The Icelandic Christmas period is a varied combination of traditional folklore and religious beliefs that begin on December 23rd and continue until January 6th, a time where there is no Santa, no reindeers (well, apart from the wild ones), and no milk and cookies. I know what you’re thinking but stay with me. Instead of Santa, the children of Iceland are instead visited by 13 Yule Lads… I’ll explain.
TheI Icelandic Yule Lads are all named after characteristics, mostly naughty habits e.g doorslammer or windowpeeker - you get the idea. And as the story goes, you leave a show out on the windowsill and they turn up and leave a present inside of it, however, if you’ve not been behaving yourself then you may only be left with a potato instead - believe us, that’s not what you want!
If you’re well behaved the Yule Lads will leave a small item like sweets or a pair of socks. Now the socks may seem a little disappointing, but if you’re not presented with an item of clothing by the Yule Lads then it is Icelandic folklore that you’ll be eaten by the Christmas Cat.
In the days before Christmas, a lot of Icelanders like to spend their time baking delightful treats in preparation for the big day - after all, Christmas is all about food… and family, of course.
Baked goods vary from classic gingerbread cookies to houses as well as other various confectionary treats. One of the most traditional treats here in Iceland is ‘Sara’. This is the name of a macaroon based dessert that is filled with chocolate cream and is then coated with even more chocolate-covered sweets, they’re very sweet; I feel like I need to brush my teeth just typing it out!
Thorlak’s Mass (Þorláksmessa)
Christmas celebrations take place all through December, however, Icelanders begin to celebrate the official start of Christmas on the 23rd making it an unofficial Christmas Eve.
During Thorlak’s Mass Reykjavik is usually filled with the hustle and bustle of city life. You have a blend of last-minute shoppers, friends, and families walking the streets, bars are filled with festive drinkers and overall the locals all begin to get into the Christmas spirit. This will also be the last chance to eat out for many until Christmas as places begin to close for Christmas Eve and Day.
Remember when I said Iceland like to do things a little different - this is what I meant. Skate is another December 23rd tradition for many locals where it involves, eating a specific fish called Skate (hence, the name), and this tradition involves hosting a dinner party where all of the guests will dress in their worst clothes, before then getting dressed into their Sunday best to go out in. You may question why, and that would be a completely reasonable response. The reason for the outfit change is that Skate has an extremely potent and overpowering stench. So bad, in fact, it seeps into your clothes and fills the house with a smell you could all do without.
A lot of Icelanders feel that Christmas has not truly started until you have had Skate, so there’s no way around this one if you want to celebrate like a true local!
Christmas Eve (Aðfangadagur)
This day is spent doing all the last minute things before Christmas, such as baking, wrapping and delivering presents, welcoming in the family, and getting everything ready for a feast at 18:00.
Alternatively, some people choose to attend Mass at 18:00 instead, where they will then sit down and eat afterward. It is completely up to your family what you choose to do.
Christmas Day/Boxing Day
Following the large family feasts and celebrations on Christmas Eve, Christmas in Iceland is spent seeing extended family or a party, or even just chilling at home and making the most of the chance to switch off for a day or two.
In addition to spending time with family over these days, it is also tradition to visit cemeteries and place a wreath where loved ones may resting. Because of this, you will often see Icelandic cemeteries beautifully lit up and decorated over the Christmas holidays.
New Year’s Eve
There is an enormous celebration in Iceland to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another. It all behind with a family dinner in the evening, before heading out to enjoy a large traditional bonfire, whichever is closest to them. However, as the capital city In Reykjavik, they like to put on a show. So this is celebrated with a massive fire where everyone will gather around.
Following a bonfire, some will then head home to get back in the warm and enjoy something fun on television to watch. Others choose to brave the weather and enjoy what Iceland has to offer. Before then heading out to enjoy a large firework display from midnight. Clubs and bars will remain open until the early hours or there is always an option for a house party. Either way, Icelanders usually find somewhere to party!
After reading this blog, you may want to learn more about the history of Iceland’s culture and any other bizarre things we like to celebrate. I wouldn’t blame you, we’re an interesting bunch!