Christmas dinner is different everywhere you go, isn’t it? England has fruity cake, Sweden has herring and meatballs, and Hungary has something with paprika, probably. Iceland has a lot of traditions when it comes to Christmas dinner, so here are some of the major ones. If you’re trying to buy this for Christmas in Iceland, here is our guide to Christmas grocery shopping in Iceland, but you can also order online and have it delivered to your house.
Iceland Christmas Dinner
Icelanders, like the rest of Scandinavians, celebrate Christmas on the evening of the 24th. Usually, people will eat with their family at 6 pm, and if they have kids they may dance around the Christmas tree singing traditional Christmas songs. After this, presents are opened. The morning of the 25th is used to sleep in (adults) and watch cartoons (kids) (although we won’t judge if you want to join them).
It’s nice to have something light to start off such a heavy meal so many choose to serve some dill-cured gravlax with gravlax sauce and/or pickled herring with rye bread. The herring is a popular Christmas food in Denmark but this sweet and sticky version of rye bread is all-Icelandic. Rye bread should be eaten with a layer of butter equally thick as the bread.
Pour 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tbsp. honey, 2 tbsp. sweet mustard, 2 tbsp. Dijon mustard, and 2 tbsp. lemon juice together until it’s even. Pour 1 dl mild-flavoured oil gradually into the mix while stirring constantly. Finally, add 2 tbsp. sour cream or crème fraiche and salt/pepper to taste. Recipe from here.
For christmas dinner, you can’t really skip serving caramel potatoes. You will need 1kg potatoes, 1 dl sugar, 0,5 dl water, 30 g butter.
Boil the potatoes, cool them immediately under cold water and skin them. The potatoes should be completely cold.
Heat the water and dissolve the sugar in it. Heat the steel or cast-iron pan or pot – no Teflon – at a medium-high heat. Pour the sugar water in the pot/pan and boil down the water. Gradually the water dissolves and the sugar gets dark. When the sugar is getting a good colour, add the butter. This will make a froth but if you keep cooking it, the froth dissipates. This is when you add the potatoes. Roll them around in the sugar solution for 10-12 minutes and serve immediately. Recipe from here.
Use a steel implement – the caramel sticks to wooden spoons.
Hangikjöt (Smoked Lamb)
Most people actually don’t serve hangikjöt or smoked lamb until Christmas day but it’s the most traditional Icelandic Christmas food, so much so that there’s one yule lad who’s dedicated his life to stealing it. To make the perfect hangikjöt, you barely cover it with cold water in a pot and heat it at a low temperature until the water boils. Then you turn off the heat but leave it in the pot with the lid on for a while. Hangikjöt is served either hot or cold. If you have a meat thermometer, the heat at the centre of the piece should not go above 70°C at any point in time.
Canned Peas and Pickled Cabbage
Okay, so this probably won’t sound appetising to non-Icelanders but they’re (for some reason) essential for the Christmas dinner table – green ORA peas and pickled red cabbage from a can. For a long time, fresh produce was hard to come by in Iceland, except for potatoes. Canned food was all you could get, especially during winter, so you would serve canned, even at Christmas.
Now we associate it with Christmas because we’re used to having it then, so we continue eating it, even if fresh food is readily available these days. In any case, no Christmas is complete without them.
You can heat the green beans in a pot or in the microwave, just heat them through. Only a psychopath would heat red cabbage – just drain it, dump it in a bowl and serve.
Making laufabrauð is usually a family activity where people get together with their families and spend the day cutting patterns in the delicate cakes before deep frying them. Making it by yourself as a part of dinner is therefore not feasible, but luckily for everyone, you can buy it ready-made at the store.
If you’re a real gourmand, butter your leaf bread as you eat it. Mmmmm.
The only thing you drink at Christmas is Christmas ale, which is a mix of Malt and Appelsín (an orange-flavoured soft drink produced in Iceland). The real question is how to mix it, serious arguments have been had through the years on whether it’s better to pour the Malt or the Appelsín first. The official stance of the soda’s producer, Ölgerðin, is that the alphabetical order is best but feel free to experiment. If the stress of it all is too much for you, Malt og Appelsín is available premixed in cans in supermarkets.
People don’t usually drink a lot of alcohol over the holidays, but if you intend to, just look out for the idiosyncratic opening hours of the state-owned liquor stores. There’s a lot of good local Christmas beers so maybe start with those.
Desserts vary according to family traditions. Some like to serve homemade ice cream, others prefer a classic danish dessert called fromage, which is a sort of creamy pudding which can be flavoured with everything from lemons to chocolate to sherry. Some even skip a traditional dessert and just serve cookies and coffee once the presents have been opened.