Christmas in Iceland | Your Ultimate Guide to Christmas Traditions, Food, and More!

Christmas in Iceland | Your Ultimate Guide to Christmas Traditions, Food, and More!

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Northern Lights over Thingvellir in Iceland

Learn all about Christmas in Iceland. What are the major Iceland Christmas traditions? Why does Iceland have 13 Santa Clauses? How is Christmas celebrated in Iceland? What does a Reykjavik Christmas look like? What are traditional Christmas foods in Iceland? Read on to find answers to these questions and more.

Many people spend Christmas and New Year's Eve in Iceland. Here's what you can expect during the Iceland Christmas holidays.

What Makes Christmas in Iceland Special?

Is Iceland a good place to spend Christmas? The answer is "yes!" There's so much to love about Iceland over Christmas:

  • Christmas in Iceland lasts for 26 days
  • Iceland has 13 Santa Clauses
  • You're almost guaranteed a white Christmas in Iceland
  • The northern lights often appear in Iceland during the holiday season
  • You can spend your Christmas vacation in Iceland visiting ice caves and going glacier hiking or snowmobiling
  • Icelandic Christmas food is delicious
  • On New Year's Eve, Reykjavik has fireworks displays that last for several hours

December is the darkest time of the year in Iceland. But the darkness is lit with Christmas lights, often accompanied by a beautiful blanket of snow. It's even possible to see the northern lights dancing in green, white, pink, and purple streaks across the sky on clear nights. During this fascinating time of year, winter's nature comes alive.

Reykjavik during Christmas.

Photo by Nanna Gunnarsdóttir 

There's a high chance for a white Christmas in Iceland, although it's not a given (especially if you're spending Christmas in Reykjavik). In 2015 there was a record snowfall early in December in Reykjavik – with a 16.5 inch (42 centimeter) thick layer of snow! The further north or into the countryside you go, the more likely you'll have a white Christmas.

So when is Christmas in Iceland? Christmas in Iceland lasts for 26 days, from the 11th of December until the 6th of January. Iceland has 13 Santa Clauses or Yule Lads. The Christmas season starts when the first Yule Lad comes to town (13 days before Christmas Eve) and finishes when the last one leaves (Twelfth Night).

Christmas lights in Iceland glow beautifully in the winter darkness. Reykjavik and other towns have endless numbers of Christmas and Advent lights. People start decorating as early as October to light up the long nights.

Auroras in Iceland over winter.

Iceland has Christmas markets, ice skating rinks, and many concerts. There are also Christmas buffets where you can taste delicious Icelandic Christmas food. 

What to Do During Christmas in Iceland

Icelandic wintertime in Reykjavík

If you're visiting Iceland for Christmas or New Year's Eve, we recommend booking a table at a restaurant as early as possible. Only a few restaurants are open during the holiday season, and they 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 Christmas tours, the holiday season still offers plenty of fun winter activities. If you're looking for things to do in Iceland during Christmas, try snowmobiling, skiing, or ice-caving. Ice skating, watching the northern lights, and glacier hiking are also popular activities.

For a Christmas tour, don't miss this charming two-day Yuletide adventure in the Highlands.

Other cultural Icelandic Christmas activities include:

  • Warming up with a soak in one of the many natural geothermal swimming baths around the country
  • Trying Christmas craft beers at local bars
  • Watching Christmas movies and listening to Icelandic Christmas songs
  • Eating to your heart's content and enjoying traditional Christmas food at a Yule buffet
  • Doing your Christmas shopping in one of the Christmas villages or markets

Iceland Winter Tours

This three-day northern lights tour of the South Coast is great for sightseeing during your free time in Iceland. There's also this five-day winter vacation package. They include glacier hiking and visiting an ice cave – what could be more fitting during the holidays?! They fill the time between Christmas and New Year's perfectly.

If you have less time, you can also visit the ice cave on this two-day ice cave tour of the South Coast.

Make the most of your time in Iceland by exploring the Snaefellsnes Peninsula as well. You can admire beautiful Mt. Kirkjufell, picturesque waterfalls, and the Snæfellsjökull glacier.  This seven-day northern lights and ice-caving winter vacation offers a breathtaking adventure.

Where to Stay in Iceland During Christmas

Reykjavik at night is still beautifully lit.

For a picture-perfect Christmas holiday in the snowy landscape, stock up on the best Christmas food from a local grocery shop. You can book a countryside cabin on for a romantic getaway or some quality family time. Choose from small or large cottages all over Iceland.

Why not book a cabin with a fireplace and a hot tub? Hot tubs are the perfect place to drink champagne and watch the northern lights.

Perhaps you'd rather snuggle up amidst the Christmas lights? Reykjavik and Akureyri – the capital of the North – both have various accommodation choices.

Christmas in Reykjavik

Christmas trees for sale in Reykjavik.

Photo by Nanna Gunnarsdóttir 

There are many things to love about a Reykjavik Christmas. Be sure to attend some Christmas concerts, many of which feature angelic choirs or some of Iceland's most beloved musicians.

Ice skating is sometimes possible on Reykjavik City Pond, Tjornin. There's also an ice skating rink in the city center on Ingolfstorg square – right by a festive Christmas market.

If you're in Reykjavik during Christmas, walk the downtown streets and admire the decorations. You can get unbeatable views of Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrimskirkja church's tower. You could also do some Christmas shopping or join a whale watching tour.

Do you want to marvel at an incredible Christmas tree in Iceland? Get the lowdown on Christmas trees in Reykjavik.

Christmas in Iceland | Your Ultimate Guide to Christmas Traditions, Food, and More!

Photo by Fred Heap

You could visit Arbaejarsafn Open-Air Folk Museum to get a look at what Christmas was traditionally like in Iceland. Visitors can make candles, taste traditional Icelandic treats, and warm themselves with a cup of hot chocolate.

Speaking of hot chocolate, Reykjavik is full of cozy cafes where you can sit down for a coffee (or a pint) and play board games or listen to live music. Overall, there are many things to do in Reykjavik at Christmas.

What does Iceland do for Christmas? | Yuletide in Iceland

Christmas in Icelandic is "jol" – a word that's more similar to "yule" than it is to "Christmas." Jol was observed long before the nation became Christian, as the shortest day of the year is on Dec. 21. In pagan times, people celebrated that the days were starting to become longer, and therefore called it the "festival of light."

With Christianity, the festival of light became associated with Jesus, and some new customs took hold.

Icelandic Christmas celebrations are also influenced by Danish and American traditions. This is especially true when it comes to food. Many people use Danish decorations and eat Ris a l'amande – a rice pudding dessert. One of the most traditional Icelandic Christmas meals is a hog roast with a Coca-Cola glaze and sauce! 

How do Icelanders say "Merry Christmas?" In Icelandic, it's "Gledileg jol!"

The fat American Santa Claus dressed in red showed up some years ago. He joins 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, with some atheists, Muslims, and other religions. There's also Paganism, which worships the old Norse gods. In Iceland, the "official" Christmas celebration occurs at precisely 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve in Iceland

So what does Christmas Eve look like in Iceland? Most Icelanders celebrate Christmas Eve with an impressive home-cooked, multi-course dinner with family. After dinner, people open their presents.

After opening the presents, some people go to a midnight Mass, where they meet their neighbors and friends. Others stay at home and perhaps use their gifts. They might read a book they were given or play cards while eating chocolate and snacks.

Candles and playing cards are common traditional Icelandic Christmas gifts. It's almost certain you'll receive at least one book as well. Icelanders are obsessed with books, especially during the Christmas holidays! 

Christmas Day and Boxing Day in Iceland

People in Iceland spend Christmas Day with their families. They relax, eat, play games, watch films, or go to big family gatherings. Boxing Day is similar, except people tend to party at night as bars are open late.

Christmas Traditions in Iceland

Icelanders love the Christmas season, and there are plenty of Christmas holiday traditions in Iceland! Most people feel that the holiday season starts four Sundays before Christmas Eve – on the first day of Advent. One of the Icelandic Christmas traditions starts then and involves the following steps:

  • Make a wreath out of fir tree branches, leaves, berries, and pine cones (or anything you want, really – there are no rules when it comes to this).
  • Place four candles in the wreath.
  • On the first Sunday in Advent, light the first candle. On the second Sunday, light the first and second candles, and so on. You'll end up with four different sized candles.

Another Christmas tradition in Iceland is to cut patterns into a thin bread called "laufabraud" or "leaf bread." The designs are similar to leaves, which gives the bread its name.

The dough of this bread is extremely thin and circular shaped, like a pancake. After cutting the bread into a lovely pattern, you fry it and serve it with butter. The texture is similar to a papadam, though it tastes different.

Why does Iceland celebrate Christmas on the 24th?

When Icelanders speak about Christmas, they generally refer to Dec. 24. This date honors Thorlakur Thorhallsson, who was named the patron saint of Iceland in 1984. The name for this day is "Adfangadagur" in Icelandic.

Dec. 25 is Christmas Day, or "Joladagur," and Dec. 26 is "the second (day) in Christmas" or "Annar i jolum." Dec. 23 also has a name, "Thorlaksmessa." What are some Icelandic traditions on these dates?

On Thorlaksmessa, the shops are open until late, usually until 10 p.m. or midnight. Bars are open until 1 a.m. (as they generally are), and people like to dress up in nice clothes and go downtown to meet friends.

Some people buy last-minute presents, even intentionally leaving the final gift until this night. Many people go to the center of town to meet friends. 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 Thorlaksmessa night is the tradition that some people look forward to the most, myself included.

Before heading to town on Thorlaksmessa, many people have fish for dinner, especially Skate. The smell of the Skate is powerful, so you'll know when someone's had it at home. The taste is quite different from the smell – or so people say. Be sure to try it if you get the chance!

Christmas Food in Iceland

Icelandic Christmas confectionary - Sarah's

Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Janet Hudson. No edits were made.

Food connects with many Icelandic Christmas traditions. Icelanders have many tasty Christmas foods.

Sweets are a meaningful Christmas food in Iceland. One of the most famed Christmas desserts in Iceland is the "Sara" – it takes quite an effort to make. This treat is named after Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress. It's a biscuit-based cream-filled almond macaroon that's dipped in chocolate.

These cookies are actually Danish. They were created in 1911 by a Danish pastry chef named Johannes Steen. He made the cookies to commemorate Sarah's arrival in Denmark to mark the publication of her memoirs in Danish. What matters most is that they are delicious and best served slightly frozen.

Gingerbread is popular in Iceland.

Photo by Dario Mingarelli

You'll find several other sweet treats in bakeries, shops, and local homes. People make gingerbread, chocolate cookies, licorice tops, and various other confections.

How much effort people put into baking differs from house to house. Some people go all-in and start baking cookies at the beginning of December or even earlier. Others take it easy and buy cookies from shops.

Christmas Dinner in Iceland

Icelandic Christmas dinner is a highlight of the year.Photo by Jed Owen

There are quite a few traditional dishes in Iceland, such as laufabraud, Skate, and Ris a l'amande. Some are eaten on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Eve, and most people will have one, two, or three of them.

"Hangikjot," or "hung meat," is the most common. It's a smoked lamb with a robust, salty flavor. It can be served hot or cold, often accompanied by laufabraud, a white potato sauce called "uppstufur," peas, red cabbage. It's served with a non-alcoholic Christmas drink called "jolaol" ("Christmas ale"). This is a mixture of malt and a fizzy orange drink called "Appelsin."

Icelandic Christmas Dinner - Hamborgarhryggur

Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Martin Sønderlev Christensen. No edits made.

"Hamborarhryggur" is another typical dish. Essentially, it's a hog roast. It has a sweet glaze and sauce made out of Coca-Cola that contrast pleasantly with the meat's salt. Icelanders serve hamborgarhryggur with caramelized potatoes, pickled red onion, and vegetables.

Game meat, such as reindeer and ptarmigan, are also popular. Reindeer only reside in the east of Iceland, but ptarmigan – or "rjupa" in Icelandic – can be found all over Iceland. It's the most popular game meat. Hunters may take only a certain number of ptarmigan each year. For some people, Christmas doesn't come unless they get this dish.

Less common – but still popular – dishes include turkey, premium cuts of beef, and geese. Expensive seafood like langoustine (Icelandic lobster) or salmon is also served. Seafood or lobster soup is popular as a starter or main course.

If you go to a Christmas buffet in Iceland, you can taste hangikjot, gravlax, laufabraud, flatkokur (flatbread), and herring.

The 13 Icelandic Yule Lads

Spoon-Licker, an Icelandic Yule Lad.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

What is Santa Claus called in Iceland? There are 13 Icelandic Santa Clauses, often referred to as Yule lads. They're called "Jolasveinar" in Icelandic and named after their characteristics. The Icelandic Yule Lads live in the highlands with their troll parents, Gryla and Leppaludi. They have a big, black cat called Jolakotturinn (the Christmas Cat).

Their mother, Gryla, is a giant, evil troll. She eats naughty children, who she cooks in a large pot. She is rather fat, so it seems she gets quite a few naughty children to eat each year.

Their father, Leppaludi is a skinny troll who's not too keen on eating children. He's a rather useless chap and does whatever Gryla tells him to do, so he often picks up the naughty kids for her.

The Icelandic Christmas Cat also loves the taste of humans, whether they've been naughty or nice. However, the only people the cat gets to eat are those who didn't get a new item of clothing before Christmas. So if you don't want a giant troll cat to eat your loved ones in Iceland, you'd better give them at least one pair of socks! 

Here, you can listen to Iceland's most famous singer, Bjork, singing about the Icelandic Christmas Cat. You can read the translation from Icelandic to English.

Gryla and Leppaludi have 13 sons – the Icelandic Santa Clauses. They're all a bit naughty, although they've softened up a bit in recent years. They leave presents in shoes children place in the window. If you've been naughty, you'll get a rotten potato.

Why are there 13 days of Christmas in Iceland instead of 12? What are the 13 days of Christmas in Iceland?

The first Santa, Stekkjastaur (Sheep Cote Clod), comes to town 13 days before Christmas Eve (on the night of Dec. 11). He has a wooden leg and likes to frighten farmer's sheep.

Gully Gawk shows up twelve days before Christmas.

Gully Gawk, the Yule Lad.Illustration by Haukur Valdimar Pálsson

The next night, Stubby arrives, the shortest of them all. And on it goes, every night. Spoonlicker comes next, then Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Door Slammer, and Skyr Gobbler. Sausage Swiper follows, then Window Peeker, Door Sniffer, Meat Hook, and – finally – Candle Beggar.

After Dec. 24, the Yule Lads head back to their home. The first one to arrive leaves on Christmas Day, and one by one, they head to the highlands until the holiday season is officially over. That day is called "the Thirteenth" or "Threttandinn" – referred to in English as "Twelfth Night."

It's common to light bonfires around Iceland on that day. Many people also use up the leftovers of their New Year's Eve fireworks.

We hope you've enjoyed learning about Christmas in Iceland. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year  Gleðileg jól og farsælt komandi ár! :)