Skip to content

How to Celebrate Christmas – the Icelandic Christmas Calendar

Christmas is celebrated big in Iceland. From December 12, the Yule Lads start arriving from the mountains one by one. Children get a small present in their shoe every day until Christmas. But that’s not the only Christmas custom, the days surrounding Christmas are filled with activities, Christmas markets, and traditions. Let us tell you more about Icelandic Christmas traditions with this Icelandic Christmas calendar.

Þorláksmessa (St. Thorlakur’s Day)

December 23

Þorláksmessa is the day of Iceland’s patron saint, St Þorlákur. It’s the last day before Christmas is celebrated, so for most people this is the height of Christmas preparation. It’s the biggest shopping day of the year and many people spend the day getting the last few Christmas gifts. A peculiar Þorláksmessa custom is eating fermented skate. The sinus-clearing aroma and funky flavour of the skate is an acquired taste, but the idea is that it will make the Christmas feast the next day taste even sweeter.

Aðfangadagskvöld (Christmas Eve)

December 24

Christmas Eve is the most important night of Christmas celebration. Christmas officially begins at 18:00 sharp. By that time most of the nation is washed and dressed in their best clothes (ideally new clothes, to fend off the Christmas Cat) and ready to sit down to Christmas dinner. This is a very intimate and festive evening that Icelanders normally spend only with their nearest and dearest. After dinner, people relocate to the Christmas tree to open presents.

Jóladagur (Christmas Day)

December 25

As the main feast is already over by the time Christmas Day rolls around, most people spend the day lazing around, reading the newest books they got for Christmas, or visiting the graves of loved ones. It’s also a day for Christmas parties, however, when people get together with their extended families, eat hangikjöt (smoked lamb) and laufabrauð, and celebrate Christmas together.

Annar í jólum (Second Day of Christmas)

December 26

Iceland has a public holiday the day after Christmas Day, which is simply called the Second Day of Christmas. It’s pretty much the same as Christmas Day, but this time the Christmas party is with the other side of the family. Also, on the Second Day of Christmas, many people figure they’ve spent quite enough time with their families and duck out of the Christmas party early to go partying.

Gamlársdagur (New Year’s Eve)

December 31

New Year’s Eve is a major event on the Icelandic social calendar. The fun begins around 18:00 when most people have a big festive dinner, after which they head out to a bonfire, or brenna, to mingle and socialise. At 22:30, it is time for the eagerly awaited Áramótaskaup (New Year’s Jest) – a 50-minute comedy special on TV. More than 90% of the Icelandic nation watches the Áramótaskaup so the streets are virtually deserted while it is on.

The New Year’s madness starts to build as soon as when the final credits roll, and at midnight all hell breaks loose. In Iceland fireworks are sold unrestricted to the public between Christmas and New Year’s, and this small nation of 375,000 people manages to fire off over 500 tonnes of fireworks on New Year’s Eve. 

Þrettándinn (Twelft Night) 

January 6

If you didn’t quench your thirst for arson and explosions on New Year’s Eve, don’t worry, just wait till Þrettándinn (Twelfth Night). There’s a lot of superstition regarding Þrettándinn. The last Yule Lad heads back to the mountains, the elves and the hidden people move houses (keep your lights on the whole night so they don’t settle in one of your dark corners), cows speak, and seals shed their skin to walk on land as men. There’s usually a bonfire where people can finish off the last of their fireworks and the kids get a visit from the elf king and queen.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter!

* indicates required

Related articles