Christmas in Iceland - Your ultimate guide to our “Gleðileg jól”!
Picture snow-covered old houses with charming string lights and smoke coming out of their chimneys. Picture children skating on a frozen pond and adults lining up for something hot to drink from a stall at an outdoor arts and crafts market. Picture Christmas trees everywhere and ambitiously decorated homes. Picture late-night shopping in little boutiques downtown with friends and neighbors running into each other in the busy streets. If this sounds like a familiar Christmas fantasy that you’d like to see in real life, you’ve come to the right place. Or at least you can come to the right place so check out flights to Iceland for Christmas and see what all the fuzz is about.
Is Iceland a good place to go for Christmas?
Yes. A thousand times yes. The stereotypical description above isn’t just a made-up scene from some children’s program. It’s a real thing in Iceland. Christmas in Iceland is the ultimate holiday and the most anticipated time of year. Schools are out for a couple of weeks, there are plenty of public holidays and a lot of businesses and workers take more time off to spend time with their families. It’s a time of lights and celebration, a distinct mood reflected in the atmosphere wherever you go.
What is special about Christmas in Iceland?
Christmastime in Iceland is not just about traditions and the atmosphere of anticipation. This is also the darkest time of year, the winter solstice when we celebrate a new dawn in a sense. But all of this darkness, and it’s pretty dark to be honest, comes with its bright side, literally. We’re talking candles, lights, decorations, fireplaces, wreaths and more lights. Every home is lit up with warm lights and old lamps and plenty of warmth for Iceland is nothing if not warm with its abundance of geothermal heat and green energy. One of Iceland’s characteristics is also its tiny population and historical isolation making this island nation a bit of a clan. There’s a rich sense of community in these parts and while diversity is welcomed, the old traditions live a good life in most homes.
How do they celebrate Christmas in Iceland?
This may come as a shock but Christmas traditions in Iceland are probably vastly different from what you’re accustomed to (wherever you’re from). Buckle up because you’re in for a ride.
· Santa Claus in Iceland - the Yule Lads
At the top of this list of specific Icelandic Christmas traditions comes the Icelandic version of Santa Claus, a role played by not one, but 13 santas or Yule Lads as they’re called in English. They’re a peculiar sort, descendants of trolls that come down from the mountains one by one in the days leading up to Christmas with treats for well-behaved children. They have strange habits and preferences and are often guilty of what can only be described as criminal behavior, such as breaking and entering and stealing your stuff. They are, however, much loved, a real highlight of Christmas, and it’s all quite hard to explain so just check out our Yule Lad blogLink opens in a new tab with illustrations by Brian Pilkington for more details on this odd bunch, their troll parents and their super scary pet!
· What do they eat for Christmas in Iceland?
We’ll get to that, but an even more interesting question would be: “What do they eat on the day before Christmas in Iceland?” There’s no easy way of saying this but on December 23 every year, a majority of Icelanders will eat fermented fish, specifically skate. The taste and texture of this dish is quite “unique” for lack of a better word, but it’s the smell that gives the skate its distinction in the culinary world. Even in Iceland, notorious for its traditional food of rotten and fermented food. This is a dish never eaten on any other day of the year and most suffer through the pungent odor filling their homes during this event. Others take to their garage with a camping stove and a pot to do this most horrendous of all culinary deeds. The smartest bunch books a table at a restaurant, months in advance and for many, this is the ultimate festive meal of the season.
The exact meal eaten on the most holy of the Christmas days in Iceland, on Christmas Eve, will vary from household to household, but standard regulars include a ham roast with pineapple, fried puffin (or boiled if you’re old-school) with a secret sauce whose recipe is guarded with the life of the most senior family member, or a prime cut of beef with all the trimmings. Many include lobster and scallop as a starter and ris a la mande for desert. New players on the scene include an American-style thanksgiving turkey with that coveted stuffing and a nut roast for the vegan family members that often have to fend off their meat-eating kin who can’t resist the delicious new dish on the table. No matter what you’re having for your main course, there’s a 99% chance that laufabrauð (fried bread) will be offered on the side and your glass will be topped with malt & appelsín, a mix of two Icelandic sodas, malt soda and orange soda. This particular drink is available as a ready-made mix around Christmas but most prefer to mix their own proportions and many families have a designated mixer whose simply the best at nailing that perfect blend. Bowls on coffee tables are always filled with Nói Siríus’ Fine Chocolate, available all year round, but rarely eaten by Icelanders from January – November. And yes, at the end of the holiday period, most Icelanders have started complaining about poor digestion, bloating and claiming a new lifestyle is on the horizon in the upcoming new year. Sure, until Þorri maybe…
· Christmas traditions in Iceland
A common way to spend your Christmas holiday in Iceland is to fluctuate between your Sunday best at various events out on the town as well as Christmas parties with your extended family on one hand and pajamas in front of an epic Hollywood movie marathon or doing a ridiculously large Christmas puzzle on the other. Much time will be spent on eating and playing board games after sleeping in and exercising intermittent napping. It’s a time of relaxation and gatherings with all kinds of entertainment to fill the gaps. But in Iceland, one activity rules them all over Christmas and that’s reading. Icelanders are literary people and books are a huge part of the national psyche. This goes back to the Viking age when the first Sagas were written in Iceland and is very much a tangible fact in modern-day Iceland, especially over Christmas. This tiny nation of just 370,000 publishes on average nearly 2,000 books a year and a large majority of them are published in what is affectionately called “The Christmas Book Flood”. It’s that period from early November until Christmas when shops fill with freshly printed books by old and new authors and everybody is talking about what they’re reading. A common question around the buffet at the family Christmas party between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve is “Did you get any good books this year?” and the following 30 minutes will be devoted to heated discussions about good, bad and great books.
What are some fun facts about Christmas in Iceland?
· Hanukkah lights are everywhere
When strolling streets in Iceland before Christmas, a very noticeable trend soon becomes apparent. Nearly every window seems to have a Hanukkah light. Yet, the Jewish population of Iceland is a very tiny minority. These are in fact Scandinavian advent lights and most households in Iceland have them. They are among the few Christmas decorations that are still a major faux pas to unpack before December 1, mostly because they are still strongly connected to the four Sundays of advent. The Hanukkah-looking-lights in the window are however not the same as the advent wreaths in the living room. These wreaths have four candles, each for the four Sundays of advent and are lit on their designated days, accompanied by a hymn in the most traditional households.
· Shoes in windowsills
Every child’s bedroom in Iceland will have a single shoe in the windowsill from December 11 until Christmas Eve. The shoe is actually a receptor for a small gift from one of the Yule Lads that start arriving one by one on the night of December 12. Well-behaved children will receive a small trinket or toy, a treat or a voucher for some fun activity. Naughty children might wake up to a potato in their shoe, the ultimate lesson in manners and an experience most children will only need once in their lives. Absolutely nobody wants to find a potato in their shoe.
· Get new clothes or the Christmas Cat will eat you
A common question or statement in December in Iceland will refer to the Christmas Cat and if it might eat you or not. It goes something like this: “I just bought a new coat for Christmas so the Christmas Cat won’t get me.” Or: “You won’t let the Christmas Cat get you this year, will you?” These refer to the man-eating Christmas Cat, the Yule Lads family pet, that comes down from the mountains before Christmas and eats people (and children) that haven’t got the proper attire for the season. It’s an old fable about dressing well and not leaving the house without a coat and showing up for church in your Sunday best but while children don’t really get this version anymore for obvious reasons, this is still a strong linguistic reference and justification to splurge on a nice outfit. New socks are often added to various Christmas gifts based on this folklore and we all think it’s pretty great honestly!
· The radio pretty much rules Christmas in Iceland
Few traditions are as holy and revered as the parts the Public Radio plays in Iceland on December 23 and 24. On December 23, the Christmas Greetings are read live on the radio. People from all walks of life, from all over the country, send in their greetings to friends and family to be read live on the radio and with a growing population, one day no longer suffices so the greetings start on December 22. On Christmas Eve, December 24, everybody turns on the radio no later than 17:30 in the afternoon to wait for the bells to toll 18:00, at which point you can formally say “Merry Christmas” to your loved ones. The bells are preceded by a long silence, full 15 minutes of radio silence to be exact, and it’s this silence that is considered the most popular radio program in the country. It is slightly problematic because if you’ve been very stressed over your pots and preparations, and not paying attention, you can never be 100% sure that the radio is in fact on and tuned into the right station.
What to do during Christmas in Iceland?
Christmas in Iceland, and specifically in Reykjavík, is a very happening and busy time. Sure, there’s a sense of urgency to get everything done but also to soak it all in while you can. “It” being the endless events that many find a vital part of the holidays in the days leading up to Christmas. There are huge Christmas concerts, the lighting of Christmas trees, Christmas plays, art shows, outdoor Christmas markets, Christmas buffets and late-night shopping. The city is bursting with activity and a lively and colorful crowd fills the streets. Hang out with the locals, enjoy the festive atmosphere and soak in the lights but look for a dark spot if you think the northern lights might come out. And lastly, just go with the flow and let Iceland charm you with its perfect mix of natural wonders and colorful urban life.
If you‘re wondering whether Iceland is a good fit for your Christmas holiday, rest assured that it will be a time of wonder, beauty and more than enough Christmas magic. This is after all a country of old-world magic, full of elves, trolls and 13 yule lads.