Gully Gawk, the Yule Lad.

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 Christmas traditions? Why does Iceland have 13 Yule Lads, and are they the same Santa Claus? How is Christmas celebrated in Iceland? What does a Christmas in Reykjavik look like? What are traditional Christmas foods in Iceland? Read on to find answers to these questions and more.



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 Yule Lads (the equivalence of having 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, 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 of a white Christmas in Iceland, although it's not a given (especially if you're spending Christmas in Reykjavik). Snowfall in December in Reykjavik can get as high as 15 inches (40 centimeters) thick layer of snow! The further north or into the countryside you go, the more likely you are to have a white Christmas.

So when is Christmas in Iceland? Christmas (or Yule) 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. One by one, each of the 13 Yule Lads comes to town every night before Christmas. The holiday season is considered over when the last Yule Lad returns to the mountains on the 6th of January.

One characteristic of Iceland during the month of December is the Christmas lights that glow beautifully in the winter darkness. Reykjavik is painted in a colorful palette of Christmas and Advent lights, both in the commercial areas of the city center and out in the suburbs and neighboring towns. People start decorating as early as October to light up the long nights that just keep getting longer until Christmas Day.

Auroras in Iceland over winter.

During December, Iceland has Christmas markets to explore, there's an ice skating rink downtown, and holiday concerts are held all throughout the city. You can also go to a traditional Christmas buffet to taste some 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 tend to get fully booked! The opening hours will be updated for each attraction in November and December when it's nearing Christmas.

The holiday season offers plenty of fun winter activities to engage in. If you're looking for things to do in Iceland during Christmas. You can go zooming across glaciers on a snowmobiling tour or explore the insides of a glacier on an ice-caving tour. Ice skating, skiing, and glacier hiking are also popular activities.

Of course, a visit to Iceland in December is not complete without seeing (or at least trying to) see the northern lights. We have a wide selection of northern lights tours for you to be a part of and put you in the best position to see the elusive lights in the sky with your own eyes.

Other cultural Icelandic Christmas activities include:

  • Warming up by soaking in one of the many geothermal swimming pools around the country
  • Trying Christmas craft beers at local bars
  • 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 Snaefellsjokull 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 Icelandic Christmas food from a local grocery shop. You can book a countryside cabin for a romantic getaway or some quality time with the family. Choose from small or large cottages all over Iceland for your perfect place in the beautiful snowy countryside.

Many of the cottages in Iceland have outside hot tubs on the porch for you to soak in during the long nights, which is perfect for possibly catching the northern lights in a cozy environment.

Perhaps you'd rather snuggle up amidst the Christmas lights with hot cocoa and a good book? There are a wealth of hotels in Reykjavik that are centrally located, surrounded by great restaurants and local shops. If you're wishing to stay up in the north of Iceland, you can take a look at our selection of hotels in Akureyri.

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 when the small lake in the city center, Tjornin, freezes over during the winter. 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, enjoy the decorations and maybe you'll catch a glimpse of one of the Yule Lads once they come to town. You can get an amazing view of Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrimskirkja church's tower. You could also do some Christmas shopping around town and just a short walk from the city center is the Old Harbour where you can join a whale-watching tour.

Trees wrapped in holiday lights at dusk

Photo by Fred Heap

You could visit Arbaejarsafn Open-Air Folk Museum to see 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. Visiting bookstores is also a must, as books are a very popular Christmas gift among Icelanders. The wealth of books published in Iceland around the holidays is sometimes called the Christmas Book Flood (Jolabokaflodid)!

What does Iceland do for Christmas? | Yuletide in Iceland

The Icelandic word for Christmas is "Jol", which is derived from the same origins as the English word Yule. Jol was observed in Iceland and the other Nordic countries long before the region became Christinanised. In pagan times, people celebrated that the days were starting to become longer following the winter solstice, which falls on December 20-23.

With Christianity, the winter solstice festival became infused with various Christian traditions, such as lighting the advent candles the last four Sundays before Christmas and going to mass on Christmas Day.

Icelandic Christmas celebrations are also influenced by some 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 dessert of rice pudding. Despite the Yule Lads being wholly of Icelandic origins and totally unrelated to the figure of Santa Claus, they are sometimes seen wearing the Coca-Cola red color of Santa and giving children presents much like ol' Saint Nicholas.

When visiting Iceland during the Christmas season, it's good to know how Icelanders say "Merry Christmas?" In Icelandic, it's "Gledileg jol!"

The Icelandic nation is mainly Lutheran, with some atheists, and other religions. There's also Paganism, which honors the tradition of the old Norse gods. The "official" Christmas celebration in Iceland occurs at precisely 6 PM on Christmas Eve, when the National Broadcasting Service rings church bells on the radio and wishes all Icelanders a merry Christmas.

Christmas Eve in Iceland

The day before Christmas Eve is Mass of St. Thorlac a traditional holiday which celebrates the patron saint of Iceland, Thorlak Thorhallsson, despite Iceland not being Catholic anymore. People attend family gatherings and feast on fermented skate and oat porridge. Sometimes an almond is hidden somewhere in the batch of porridge, so whoever gets the almond wins a prize.

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 or watch Christmas films. Many attend big family gatherings wearing their best Christmas clothes, bringing savoury roll cakes and Icelandic Christmas cookies. December 26th (Boxing Day) is called the "second day of Christmas" in Iceland (Annar i Jolum) and is a public holiday. It tends to have a more casual feel and is less traditional than the previous three days. People go out and meet their friends and attend parties and late night gatherings.

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. Lighting the Advent candles is an old Christmas tradition in Iceland and it involves these simple 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 crispy bread called "laufabraud" or "leaf bread." The bread gets its name, not because it's made with leaves, but because the shape of the patterns in the bread resemble leaves.

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 "jol", they generally are referring to December 24th. The name for this day is "Adfangadagur" in Icelandic. The reason Icelanders celebrate Christmas on the 24th is because in the old Icelandic calendar, the start of a new day was at sunset. Therefore, when the sun sets on December 24th, around 6 PM, that's when Christmas Day starts according to the old calendar and the Yule celebration begins.

On December 23rd, the shops are open until late, usually until 10 PM or midnight. Bars are open until 1 AM (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. The Yule Lads are walking around greeting (and pranking) people, and their terrible mother Gryla might even make an appearance.

Going downtown on Thorlac's Mass is the tradition that some people look forward to the most!

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.

Sweets are a meaningful Christmas food in Iceland. One of the most popular 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 or bakeries.

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 the aforementioned laufabraud, skate, and rice pudding. Some are eaten on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Eve, and most people will have one, two, or three of them.

Smoked lamb called "hangikjot," (literally "hung meat") is the most common. It's smoked with horse dung and has a robust, salty flavor. It can be served hot or cold, often accompanied by laufabraud, peas, red cabbage and a white potato sauce similar to bechamel sauce called "uppstufu". It's served with a non-alcoholic Christmas drink called "jolaol" ("Christmas ale"), which is a mixture of malt and a fizzy orange soda called "Appelsin."

Icelandic Christmas Dinner - Hamborgarhryggur

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

"Hamborgarhryggur" is another typical dish. Essentially, it's a hog roast. It has a sweet glaze and sauce contrasting 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 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 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? The short answer is: There is no Santa Claus, but there are 13 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, frightening troll that eats naughty children and cooks them in a large pot.

Their father, Leppaludi, is a lazy 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!

Every year, a huge sculpture of the Christmas Cat is displayed on Laekjartorg square in downtown Reykjavik, seen on the picture below, which is worth seeing in person.

Yule Cat

Photo by TKSnaevarr, from Wikimedia Creative Commons


Gryla and Leppaludi have 13 sons – the Yule Lads! They're all a bit naughty, although they've softened up a bit in recent years. Children leave their shoe on their window sill for the Yule Lads to give them presents every morning, for all 13 days before Christmas. However, if you've been naughty, you'll just 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 Yule Lad, Sheep-Cote Clod, comes to town 13 days before Christmas Eve, on the night of December 11. He has a wooden leg and likes to frighten farmer's sheep.

The following night, Gully Gawk shows up, known for stealing milk right from the cow's udders!

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 December 24th, the Yule Lads head back to their home. The first one to arrive, Sheep-Cote Clod, leaves on Christmas Day, and one by one, they head to the highlands until the holiday season is officially over. When Candle Beggar finally heads home, on the 6th of January, the day is called "the Thirteenth" or "Threttandinn".

On that day, bonfires are lit around the country and sometimes a parade of trolls, elves and other creatures stroll down main street. Many people also use up the leftovers of their New Year's Eve fireworks to "blow away" the Christmas season until next December.

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