Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and marks the official start of the Christmas season. It is when things start getting magical, with lights shining through the winter darkness, concerts and celebrations, and festive spirits. Come late November, Advent lights, arguably the most popular of the Icelandic Christmas decorations, are everywhere. One of the unshakable traditions of Advent in Iceland is the Christmas buffet. Most restaurants offer them and almost everyone will partake at least once during Advent. These are lavish affairs typically containing dozens of dishes, both hot and cold, and of course a stacked dessert buffet.
Most countries where Christmas is celebrated have their own version of a benevolent person, creature, or thing, that gives children treats around Christmastime. Italy has Befana, the Christmas witch, Spain has Tió de Nadal, a present-pooping log, and America and Britain have, of course, Santa Claus. Iceland, however, takes things a little bit further with 13 Yule Lads, each with their own definitive character. They live in a cave in an undisclosed location in the mountains with their mother, the formidable Grýla, her wimpy husband, Leppalúði, and the Christmas Cat, and come down from the mountains one by one between December 12 and December 24.
Christmas trees in Iceland used to be made of wood and decorated with juniper branches to resemble a real Christmas tree, mostly because there just weren’t that many evergreen trees that could be cut down. Today, most Icelanders use real trees, as opposed to artificial ones. The tradition is to decorate them just a day or two before Christmas, on December 23, or even on December 24. They then stay up until all the Yule Lads have gone back to the mountains and are taken down along with all other Christmas decorations on January 6, when Twelfth Night is celebrated.
Skötuveislur or fermented skate parties are without a doubt one of the more bizarre Icelandic traditions. Every year on December 23, Icelanders get together and eat fermented skate. It has a smell that will clear your sinuses from about a mile away. It’s a popular tradition, so you better reserve a table at a restaurant in advance if you don’t want your entire housing smelling of rotting fish.
Most Icelandic families keep the tradition of making laufabrauð (literally “leaf bread”). Laufabrauð is a very thin deep-fried wheat bread decorated with leaflike patterns. Young and old members of the family gather to cut the bread together, some trying their best to make theirs unique by exploiting their artistic side, while others are mostly there for the snacks and the good company. It is served during Christmas dinner or kept as a snack throughout Christmas.
For centuries, smoked lamb, or hangikjöt, was the traditional gourmet Christmas meal, although this has changed in the last few decades. Most families tend to stick to one single tradition for their Christmas meal. Popular fare at Christmas includes rjúpa, or rock ptarmigan, and hamborgarhryggur, glazed rack of ham, traditionally a Danish meal. Also, catching on in the last few years are reindeer, turkey, and even Beef Wellington. A smoked leg of lamb is still enjoyed by many on Christmas Day.
Malt og Appelsín
Iceland’s traditional Christmas drink is a non-alcoholic mixture of the locally produced Malt (malt beer) and Appelsín (orange soda). Each family member tends to have his or her own opinion on what constitutes the perfect mixture of the two: 50/50 or 60/40, Appelsín first or Malt first? Debates can go on for hours, days or even years. What do you think? Pick up a can/bottle of each and experiment! To avoid the stress of figuring out the correct ratio, you can also get it premixed.
Shoes in the window
The Icelandic Yule Lads, though traditionally known for being troublemakers, have picked up a habit of leaving presents for well-behaving children. When the lads start coming to town, one by one, for the last 13 days before Christmas, children leave their shoe in the window before they go to sleep. When they wake up, they find a gift or a treat in their shoe. If they’ve been good, that is. If they haven’t, all they can expect is an old potato
The Christmas Book Flood
Iceland sells more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and the vast majority of them are sold in the lead-up to Christmas. In Iceland, this is known as the Christmas Book Flood. The tradition in Iceland is that everyone must receive at least one book for Christmas to take to bed on Christmas Eve along with some chocolates. So, beginning of November, hundreds of books are published and the talk is all about books, Once Christmas is over and the books have been read, everyone’s a critic, giving their views and opinions of that latest tome and whether it is as good, or better, as the author’s last one.
New Year’s Eve bonfires
On New Year’s Eve, bonfires are lit throughout the country to symbolize the burning of the old year. There’s always a really great atmosphere at these brennur, kids with sparklers, happy faces, friends and neighbours mingling, and the heat of the fire mixed with the winter cold. Since the brennur are not always easy for foreign visitors to find, in recent years, tour operators have started organising special tours to get them involved in the fun.
According to folklore, strange and magical things took place on the Twelfth Night (January 6) that could be dangerous for humans. Cows started talking (although people were warned not to listen to them because their talk would drive them mad), seals shed their skins and walked as men, and elves moved to a new house. People make sure to keep every corner of their house well-lit on Twelfth Night in case the elves stop by on their way. Today, the tradition lives on in Twelfth Night bonfires where the “elf king and queen” will often make an appearance. Families flock to the bonfires and sing New Year’s songs, often containing lots of references to elves.