What is Christmas in Iceland like? How do Icelanders celebrate Christmas? Why does Iceland have 13 Santa Clauses? What is traditional Christmas food in Iceland?
More and more people are spending their Christmas holidays in Iceland - and even more people come to the country for New Year's Eve. So, what can you expect when coming to Iceland during this holiday season.
December is the darkest time of the year in Iceland. However, the dark days are lit up with countless Christmas lights, often accompanied by a beautiful blanket of snow. On clear nights, there is even a possibility to see the Northern Lights, dancing in green, white, pink and purple streaks across the sky. Hence, this is a fascinating time of year, one where winter's nature comes alive.
Picture by Vilhelm Gunnarsson
There's a pretty high chance that you can experience white Christmas in Iceland, although it's not a given (especially if you're spending Christmas in Reykjavík). However, in 2015 there was a record snowfall early in December in Reykjavík - with 42cm thick layer of snow! The further north you go, or into the countryside, it's more likely that you'll have a white Christmas.
Christmas in Iceland lasts for 26 days, from the 11th of December until the 6th of January, and Iceland has 13 Santa Clauses, or Yule Lads. Christmas season starts when the first Yule Lad comes to town (13 days before Christmas Eve), and finishes when the last one leaves town (Twelfth Night).
Reykjavík, as well as other towns around the country, is lit up with endless amounts of Christmas lights and advent lights, and people start decorating as early as October to battle the dark nights.
Around town there are Christmas markets, ice skating rinks, countless concerts and Christmas buffets where you can taste some delicious Icelandic Christmas food.
First of all, if you are coming to Iceland during Christmas or New Year's Eve, then we recommend booking a table at a restaurant as early as possible for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve.
You can find a list of Christmas and New Years opening hours for 2017 here for restaurants, museums, swimming pools, grocery shops and other attractions. Note that only a few restaurants are open during the holiday season and they will get fully booked! The opening hours will be updated for each attraction in November and December, when it's nearing Christmas.
Although there aren't many specific Christmas tours you can choose from, the Holiday Season still offers plenty of fun winter activities for you to choose from.
To get into the festive spirit, join this Christmas and New Year's Tour that is available from mid-November until January - here you'll get to hear about the Icelandic Santa Clauses and listen to live music in an Icelandic home.
For a winter adventure in the countryside, this 3 Day Tour of the South Coast and this 5 Day Tour Winter Package are great for sightseeing during your free time in Iceland, and they include glacier hiking or a visit to an ice cave - what could be more fitting during the holidays?! Perfect to fit in between Christmas and New Year's. And if you have less time, you can also visit the ice cave on this 2-day tour of the south coast.
Make the most of your time in Iceland and explore not only the South Coast and an ice cave, the Golden Circle and Reykjavík but head towards Snæfellsnes peninsula as well. You'll be able to admire beautiful Mt Kirkjufell, picturesque waterfalls as well as the glacier Snæfellsjökull on this 7 Day Winter Vacation.
Or if you are based in Akureyri, check out this Winter Wonderland of the North | Christmas Tour from Akureyri day tour.
Picture from bungalo.com
For the picture-perfect Christmas Holiday in the snowy landscape, stack up on the best Christmas food from a local grocery shop, and book a countryside cabin on Bungalo.com for either a romantic getaway, or some quality family time. You can choose from a variety of small and large cabins all over the country.
Why not get one with both a fireplace and a hot tub? Hot tubs are the perfect place to sip on champagne and watch the Northern Lights.
If you'd rather snuggle up amidst the Christmas lights in the capital city, or in Akureyri - the capital of the North, then both Reykjavík and Akureyri have a variety of accommodation to choose from.
Picture from Grownuptravelguide.com
If you are spending Christmas in Reykjavik, be sure to attend some Christmas concerts, many of which are by angelic sounding choirs or some of Iceland's most beloved musicians.
Ice skating is sometimes possible on Reykjavík City Pond, Tjörnin, but even if the temperature is unfavourable then another ice skating rink is erected right in the city centre, on Ingólfstorg square - right by a festive Christmas market.
Stroll the streets of downtown, admire the decorations, get unbeatable views over Reykjavík from the top of Hallgrímskirkja church's tower, do some Christmas shopping or hop on a whale watching tour!
Picture by Vilhelm Gunnarsson
Or you could visit Árbæjarsafn Open Air Folk Museum, to get a glimpse of what Christmas was traditionally like in Iceland. They have a special schedule during Christmas, where visitors are able to make candles, taste traditional Icelandic treats and warm themselves with a hot cup of chocolate.
Speaking of hot chocolate, Reykjavík is full of cosy cafés where you can sit down for a cuppa (or a pint) and play board games or listen to some live music.
Christmas in Icelandic is 'jól' - a word that's more similar to yule than it is to 'Christmas'. Jól have been celebrated long before the nation became Christian, as the shortest day of the year is on the 21st of December. In pagan times this is when people celebrated that the days were starting to become longer - and therefore called it the festival of the light.
With Christianity, the 'festival of light' became associated with Jesus and some new customs took hold. Icelandic Christmas celebrations also got influenced by Danish and American customs, especially when it comes to food. Many people use Danish decorations and perhaps eat 'Ris a l'amande' - and one of the most 'traditional' Icelandic Christmas meals is a hog roast glazed with Coca Cola and with a Coca Cola sauce!
The American fat Santa Claus dressed in red showed up some years ago, in addition to the 13 rather skinny Icelandic troll santa clauses, or Yule lads, that have been coming to town every year for centuries.
The Icelandic nation is mainly Lutheran, mixed in with some atheists, Muslims and people of all religions - including the pagan religion where people worship the old Norse gods. People celebrate Christmas in a variety of ways in the country - but the 'official' Christmas celebration takes place at precisely 6pm on Christmas Eve, the 24th of December.
On this day the majority of Icelanders celebrate Christmas with an impressive multi-course, home-cooked Christmas dinner with family members. After dinner, people open their presents.
After opening the presents, some people go to a midnight Mass, where they'll meet their neighbours and friends, others stay at home and perhaps make use of their gifts, i.e. read a book they got given or play cards, with some chocolate nibbles on the side.
Back in the day, people would normally give a candle and some playing cards as Christmas gifts - but in modern times it is almost certain that people will receive at least one book - as Icelanders are obsessed with books, especially during Christmas holidays!
Picture from WhatsOn
Christmas Day itself is spent with the family, relaxing, eating good food, playing games, watching films or going to a big family gathering. Boxing Day is similar, except people also tend to go out partying in the night, as bars are open until late.
(Picture from Dísukökur - Christmas recipes)
Icelanders love the Christmas season and people have plenty of different customs! Many of these traditions are connected with food and Icelanders have a variety of tasty Christmas food to sample.
The most 'prestigious' sweet treat is the 'Sara' - as it takes quite an effort to make. This almond macaroon, biscuit based, chocolate cream filled and chocolate dipped treat is named after Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress. These cookies are Danish however, as they were created in 1911 by a Danish pastry chef, Johannes Steen, to commemorate Sarah when she arrived in Denmark to mark the publication of her memoirs in Danish. What matters most is that they are absolutely delicious, and they are best served slightly frozen.
Picture by Árni Sæberg
You'll find a number of other different sweet treats in bakeries, shops and in local homes. People also make gingerbread cookies, chocolate cookies, liquorice tops and a variety of confectionary and it differs from house to house how much effort is put into the baking. Some people go all in and start baking many sorts of cookies in the beginning of December, or even earlier. Others take it easier and just buy cookies in the shops.
Most people feel that the Holiday Season starts four Sundays before Christmas Eve - on the first day of advent. It is customary to make a heath out of fir tree branches, leaves, berries and pine cones (or anything you want to make it out of really - there are no rules when it comes to this!) and place 4 candles in this heath. On the first Sunday in Advent, you light the first candle, on the second Sunday you light the first and second candle and so on, so that you'll end up with 4 candles that are different in size.
(Picture from this blog - and more information about laufabrauð)
Another tradition is to cut patterns into a thin bread that is called 'laufabrauð' - or 'leaf bread'. The patterns can be similar to leaves, hence the name. The dough of this bread is extremely thin and circular shaped, resembling a pancake. When the bread has been cut out in a lovely pattern it is then fried and served with butter. The texture of the bread is similar to a crunchy poppadom when it has been fried, although the taste is rather different.
When Icelanders speak about 'Christmas', they are generally referring to the 24th of December. The name for this day is 'aðfangadagur' in Icelandic. 25th of December is Christmas Day, or 'jóladagur' and the 26th is 'the second (day) in Christmas' or 'annar í jólum'. The 23rd also has a name, called 'Þorláksmessa'.
On Þorláksmessa the shops are open until late, usually until 22:00 or even until midnight. Bars are open until 1 am (as they generally are) and people like to dress up in nice clothes and go downtown to mingle. Some people buy presents last minute, some leave the last gift on purpose until this night, many people just go to the centre of town to see people and be seen - if you're a local you're bound to spend most of the evening greeting friends and perhaps stopping in a bar or café for a pint or a cup of hot chocolate.
Going downtown on Þorláksmessa night is the tradition that some people look forward to the most, myself included.
Before entering town on Þorláksmessa many people have fish for dinner, specifically a fish called Skate. The stench of the Skate is extremely strong - so you'll know when someone's had it at home. The taste is quite different from the smell - or so I've heard - I've never personally had one since my mother doesn't like it and doesn't want the whole house to smell of it! I'll be sure to taste it in the near future, and urge you to do the same if you get the chance!
I've already mentioned quite a few dishes that are traditional in Iceland, such as the confectionary, laufabrauð, Skate and the Danish Ris a l'amande (rice pudding) - but there are plenty more to choose from!
On Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve there are a few dishes that are considered Christmas dishes and most people will have one, two or three of them.
'Hangikjöt' or 'Hung Meat' is the most common one. This is a smoked lamb, that's quite salty and has a very strong flavour. It can both be served hot or cold and is normally accompanied with the laufabrauð, a white potato sauce called 'uppstúfur', peas, red cabbage and a Christmas (non-alcoholic) drink that's simply called Christmas Ale (jólaöl), a mixture of an orange fizzy drink called Appelsín and malt.
(Picture from DV)
'Hamborgarhryggur' is another common dish, that is essentially a hog roast. The salt in the meat is contradicted with a sweet glazing and a sweet sauce, made out of Coca Cola. It is also served with caramelised potatoes, pickled red onion and some vegetables. My family normally serves Waldorf salad along with it.
Game such as reindeer and ptarmigan are also popular. Reindeer only resides in the east of Iceland, but ptarmigan - or 'rjúpa' in Icelandic, can be found all over the country - and is the most popular game meat. Only a certain number of ptarmigans are allowed to be shot each year - and for some people, Christmas doesn't come unless they get this dish.
These would be the most common dishes - but other ones are also coming in strong, such as turkey, premium cuts of beef, geese and luxurious seafood such as langoustine (Icelandic lobster) or salmon. Seafood soup or lobster soup is also popular as a starter or even as a main course.
If you go to a Christmas buffet in Iceland, you'll be able to taste hangikjöt, gravlax, laufabrauð, flatkökur (flat bread) and different types of herring.
(Picture by Hugleikur Dagsson)
The Icelandic Santa Clauses, or Yule Lads as they are often referred to (they're called 'jólasveinar' in Icelandic), are 13 in total and all of them are named after their characteristics. The Icelandic Yule Lads live in the highlands, with their troll parents Grýla and Leppalúði, and their big, black cat, simply called the Christmas Cat ('jólakötturinn').
Grýla is the mother, she is a big troll and a very nasty one. She likes nothing better to eat than nasty or naughty children, who she cooks in a large pot. She is rather fat, so it seems like she gets a handful of naughty children to eat each year.
Leppalúði is the father. He's not too keen on eating children, and is in fact a rather useless chap. He's a skinny troll, and basically does whatever Grýla tells him to do, so he often picks up the naughty kids for her to put in her pot.
The Christmas Cat also loves the taste of humans, no matter if they've been naughty or not. The only people the cat gets to eat each year, however, are the ones that didn't get a new item of clothing before Christmas. So if you don't want your loved one to be eaten by a giant troll cat in Iceland, you'd better give them at least one pair of socks!
Here you can listen to Iceland's most famous singer, Björk, singing about the Icelandic Christmas Cat - and read the translation of the text from Icelandic to English.
Grýla and Leppalúði have 13 children, all male, that are the Icelandic Santa Clauses. They're all a bit naughty - although they have softened up a bit in recent years and have started leaving presents for kids in their shoe if they leave one in their window each night. If you've behaved badly you'll get a rotten potato.
13 days before Christmas Eve (on the night of the 11th of December) is when the first Santa comes to town, Sheep Cote Clod ('Stekkjastaur'). He has a wooden leg and likes to frighten farmer's sheep.
12 days before Christmas Eve is when Gully Gawk shows up.
The next night, Stubby arrives, the shortest one of them all. And so on it goes, every night. After Stubby, Spoonlicker arrives, then Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Door Slammer, Skyr Gobbler, Sausage Sweeper, Window Peeker, Door Sniffer, Meat Hook and lastly Candle Beggar.
After the 24th of December, the Yule Lads head back to their home, one by one. So the first one to arrive leaves on Christmas Day and then one by one they head to the highlands until the Holiday Season is officially over. That day is called 'The Thirteenth' or 'Þrettándinn' - in English it's referred to as Twelfth Night.
On that day, it is customary to throw bonfires around the country when many people also use up the leftovers of their New Year's Eve fireworks.
Do you want to know something more about Christmas in Iceland? If so, let us know in the comments!
Merry Christmas and a happy New Year - Gleðileg jól og farsælt komandi ár! :)