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Christmas in Iceland and the Impact of COVID-19

Christmas in Iceland and the Impact of COVID-19

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Northern Lights over Thingvellir in Iceland

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? How will COVID-19 affect Christmas in 2021? Read on to find answers to these questions and more. 

Many people are spending their Christmas holidays in Iceland, and even more people are coming to the country for New Year's Eve. So read on to find out what you can expect when coming to Iceland during this holiday season.

How COVID-19 Affects Christmas in Iceland

The Christmas of 2020 was quiet in Iceland, with restrictions dampening plans as the country worked to stop the spread of COVID-19; for many around the rule, this was the same. Thankfully, however, it looks like future Christmases will be more promising, particularly here where such incredible progress has been made in the battle against the virus.

Already, the vast majority of the population has had at least one jab, and very shortly, all who can be and want to be fully vaccinated will be (and, it should be noted, vaccine conspiracies are not widespread in Iceland). Because of this and the other effective measures taken over the past year or so, the country has been able to lift all national restrictions.

As such, should there be no unexpected changes, you will be also to enjoy Iceland during Christmas without restraint. You can enjoy a traditional dinner without worrying about limited capacities at venues, shop for gifts without queuing the cold and wearing a mask, and socialize with the locals at festive events.

Christmas decoration in Iceland.

Photo by Nanna Gunnarsdóttir 

The only restrictions still in place are on international travelers, and even these are easing quickly. Now, any with a full vaccination or proof of recovery from a past infection can enter without hurdle, other than having to pre-register online. Those from a list of approved countries can do the same without immunity, but must also prove negative tests before and after arrival (with a 5-day quarantine).

To ensure there are no changes to these rules by Christmas, stay up-to-date with our COVID-19 information page.

What Makes Christmas in Iceland Special?

  • 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 during the Holiday Season in Iceland
  • Around Christmas, you can visit ice caves, go glacier hiking, or snowmobiling
  • Icelandic Christmas food is delicious
  • On New Year's Eve, all of Reykjavík becomes a firework display for several hours

December is the darkest time of the year in Iceland. However, the dark days light up with countless Christmas lights, often accompanied by a beautiful blanket of snow. There is even a possibility to see the Northern Lights dancing in green, white, pink, and purple streaks across the sky on clear nights. Hence, this is a fascinating time of year, one where winter's nature comes alive.

Reykjavik during Christmas.

Photo by Nanna Gunnarsdóttir 

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 a 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 and other towns around the country light up with endless amounts of Christmas lights and advent lights, and people start decorating as early as October to battle the long nights.

Auroras in Iceland over winter.

There are Christmas markets, ice skating rinks, countless concerts, and Christmas buffets where you can taste some delicious Icelandic Christmas food around town. 

What to Do During Christmas in Iceland

Icelandic wintertime in Reykjavík

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.

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. 

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.

Where to Stay in Iceland During Christmas

Reykjavik at night is still beautifully lit.

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 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. 

Christmas in Reykjavik

Christmas trees for sale in Reykjavik.

Photo by Nanna Gunnarsdóttir 

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. Even if the temperature is unfavorable, then another ice skating rink is erected right in the city center, 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!

Christmas in Iceland and the Impact of COVID-19

Photo by Fred Heap

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 can make candles, taste traditional Icelandic treats and warm themselves with a hot cup of chocolate.

Speaking of hot chocolate, Reykjavík is full of cozy cafés where you can sit down for a cuppa (or a pint) and play board games or listen to some live music. 

Yuletide in Iceland

Christmas in Icelandic is 'jól' - a word that's more similar to yule than it is to 'Christmas.' Jól has been celebrated long before the nation became Christian, as the shortest day of the year is on the 21st of December. In pagan times, 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 traditions, 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 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 various ways in the country - but the 'official' Christmas celebration occurs at precisely 6 pm 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 neighbors 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 typically 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 the Christmas holidays! 

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 at night, as bars are open until late.

Christmas Traditions & Christmas Food in Iceland

Icelandic Christmas confectionary - Sarah's

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

Icelanders love the Christmas season, and people have plenty of different customs! Food connects with many of these traditions, and Icelanders have various 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. However, these cookies are Danish 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.

Gingerbread is popular in Iceland.

Photo by Dario Mingarelli

You'll find several other different sweet treats in bakeries, shops, and local homes. People also make gingerbread cookies, chocolate cookies, licorice tops, and various confections, and it differs from house to house how much effort they put into the baking. Some people go all-in and start baking cookies at the beginning of December or even earlier. Others take it easy and 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 four 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 candles and so on so that you'll end up with four candles that are different in size.

Another tradition is to cut patterns into a thin bread called 'laufabrauð' - or 'leaf bread.' The designs can be similar to leaves, hence the name. The dough of this bread is extremely thin and circular shaped, resembling a pancake. After you cut the bread out in a lovely pattern, it is then fried and served with butter. The fried bread texture is similar to a crunchy poppadom, although the taste is somewhat 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, and some leave the last gift on purpose until this night, many people go to the center 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 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 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 candy, 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. It's a smoked lamb that's quite salty and has a very strong flavor. It can be served hot or cold and is usually accompanied with the laufabrauð, a white potato sauce called 'uppstúfur,' peas, red cabbage, and a Christmas (non-alcoholic) drink. The drink is called Christmas Ale (jólaöl), and it's a mixture of an orange fizzy drink called Appelsín and malt.

Icelandic Christmas Dinner - Hamborgarhryggur

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

'Hamborgarhryggur' is another common dish that is essentially a hog roast. A sweet glaze and sauce made out of Coca Cola give a pleasant contrast with the meat's salt. It is also served with caramelized potatoes, pickled red onion, and some vegetables.

Games 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. Hunters may take only a certain number of ptarmigans 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 (flatbread), and different types of herring.

The Thirteen Icelandic Yule Lads


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

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 giant 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 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. However, the only people the cat gets to eat each year 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 of whom are 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 shoes if they leave one in their window each night. If you've misbehaved, you'll get a rotten potato.

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

Twelve days before Christmas Eve is when Gully Gawk shows up.

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

The next night, Stubby arrives, the shortest one of them all. And so on it goes, every night. After Stubby, Spoonlicker comes, 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' - referred to in English 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! :)