Christmas in Iceland
How do Icelanders celebrate Christmas?
Christmas: Food and Family
When people think of winter in Iceland, they often think about the northern lights, the lousy weather, or the lack of sunlight. But in the middle of the dark, snowy winter is one of best times to visit Iceland: Christmas, or, jól as it is called in Icelandic. Christmas lights are strung all over Reykjavík, which brighten up the dark days. Feasts and baking are essential parts of the Christmas traditions.
Most Icelandic families observe the same Yule-time traditions. December 23 is Þorláksmessa, a day celebrating Iceland‘s first saint, St. Þorlák. They celebrate by eating fermented skate, a fish that has been buried, fermenting for six months. Its pungent ammonia smell and intense taste takes some getting used to.
Icelanders celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve with family and friends, usually with a big dinner followed by giving gifts. Christmas Day is typically set aside for visiting extended family. Food, as you can guess by now, is an important part of Christmas traditions. On Xmas Day, many enjoy hangikjöt, or smoked lamb.
Christmas City Tours
Grýla, the Yule Cat and the Yule Lads
Be good or be eaten
Iceland has some great Christmas folklore – although a lot of it has to do with children being eaten!
Grýla, a hideous troll that lives up in the mountains, comes to town around Christmas in search of disobedient children. Her pet cat, Jólakötturinn – the Yule Cat – is said to wander around the countryside in search of people who have not received new clothes before Christmas Eve. The punishment for not getting a new sweater or a pair of socks is – you guessed it – being eaten!
Grýla and her lazy third husband Leppalúði have 13 mischievous sons known affectionately as the Yule Lads. Children are visited by one Yule Lad every night in the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. If you‘ve been good, you will find a small gift on your window sill. If you‘ve been bad, you may find a potato in your shoe! Each Yule Lad has a name that corresponds with whatever mischief he is causing – one steals your milk, another likes to slam doors, and another likes to lick the spoons! Read more about the Yule Lads here.
Fun for the Whole Family
The Christmas Book Flood
Despite its small population, Iceland is home to more authors per capita than almost anywhere else on Earth. That means that there are lots and lots of books! Icelanders love reading, and, due to circumstances during WWII, began a tradition of giving books for Christmas gifts.
This resulted in a huge amount of books being published in the lead-up to Christmas. Known as Jólabókaflóðið, or the Christmas book flood, this mass production allows Icelanders to get their hands on the newest and most exciting Icelandic literature to give to their loved ones.
This is just one of many Icelandic Christmas traditions that make December a great time to visit Iceland.