Winter in Iceland takes on wonderland qualities as Christmas approaches. Fairy lights are everywhere, tastefully adorning houses, trees, shops, offices and streets. For a country without trees, Iceland has a strong tradition of Christmas trees and with snow in the countryside and sometimes also in Reykjavik, there are plenty of reasons to spend the holiday season in Iceland.
Iceland is rich in unique Christmas traditions, comprising an intriguing mix of religious celebration and folklore. Festivities kick off on December 23 and conclude on Twelfth Night, January 6. In addition to marking the birth of Christ, Icelanders are also celebrating the start of the lengthening of the days and are, therefore, especially keen to bring light into their festivities and illuminate their homes with bright lights both inside and out. Their word for Christmas, Jól, comes from Old Norse and contains no reference to Christ or the church. It exists in English as Yule.
The celebrations feature not one but 13 “Santas”, who are known as the Yule Lads. Instead of arriving from the North Pole on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, they live in the mountains and arrive in town, one a day beginning on December 12, bringing small gifts for the children. Traditionally, however, they were rather less magnanimous, being the offspring of the ogress Gryla – whose favourite dish is naughty child stew – and used to scare the youngsters into good behaviour. Their names are indicative of their former trickster lifestyles. Bjúgnakrækir, or Sausage-Swiper, hides in the rafters of the house to snatch sausages while they are being smoked. Others are called Door-Slammer, Skyr-Gobbler and Candle-Stealer. Starting on December 25, the Yule Lads begin their journey home, with the last one departing on Twelfth Night.
Even worse than the Yule Lads is their cat, Jólakötturinn, which is rumoured to eat any child who fails to receive new clothes for Christmas. This threat was used by farmers as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. The ones who worked hard would be rewarded with new clothes, but those who did not would get nothing and would be preyed upon by the monstrous ‘Christmas cat’. The perception of the Yule Cat as a man-eating beast was partly popularised by the poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum in his poem Jólakötturinn.
December 23 is the celebration of St Thorlákur’s Mass, named after a priest who died on this date in 1193. Fermented skate is the traditional dish associated with the day, the last of the pre-Christmas fast, when the consumption of meat was forbidden. The tradition of eating skate on December 23 is still very much alive in Iceland – despite the strong smell of ammonia that accompanies the putrefied fish. The main celebration begins at 6pm on December 24 when families dine together.
New Year’s Eve is undoubtedly the biggest party night of the year. Unlike at other times, when special permission is required, Icelanders are allowed to light fireworks at will. At midnight, fire trucks and ships in the harbour ring their bells and sound their horns to welcome in the New Year as the sky is lit up all around. It’s a time for local neighbourhoods to gather together and enjoy bonfires as the new year arrives. For visitors, it’s an evening to join the party in Reykjavik and watch the fireworks in the harbour. New Year firework displays take place all over Iceland so there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to celebrate at a smaller scale too.
Planning early is an advantage! Please contact us well in advance about Christmas and New Year escorted or independent holidays in Iceland.