Are you in Iceland over Christmas? Then you picked a good time for your vacation because Icelanders love Christmas. To prove this, Iceland has a lot more Santa Clauses than other countries, instead of one, there are 13 Yule Lads! Most of the year, they live in the mountains, but at Christmastime, they come down to the city one by one.
The first one arrives on December 12, and the last one arrives on December 24. The first one then leaves again on December 25, and the last Yule Lad leaves on January 6. You could say Christmas lasts from December 12 until January 6. Around town, you will find lots of decorated and lighted Christmas trees. You can read more about these Christmas trees in this article.
Christmas or Yule?
The 13 Icelandic Santa Clauses are called Yule Lads, and the Icelandic word for Christmas is jól. Both refer to the pagan midwinter festival Yuletide. Before Christianity was introduced in Iceland, the country celebrated the winter solstice, because, after the solstice, the days would get longer again.
In Iceland, these celebrations were quite big, people would come together to drink and feast. After Christianity was adopted in 1000AD, the winter solstice celebration was combined with the Christian Christmas tradition. Icelandic Christmas is still a mix of the pagan Yuletide and Christian Christmas celebrations (and Icelandic folklore).
Traditional Christmas trees
As you may know, there are not a lot of trees in Iceland. The first settlers of Iceland brought sheep, pigs, and horses with them. Back in the day, Iceland was covered with trees, but they were cut down to create pastures for livestock. Over hundreds of years, more and more forests were turned into grasslands for cattle, until almost all trees were cut. Reforestation appeared a challenge and is still an ongoing process.
So, where could Icelandic people get their Christmas trees? Christmas trees became common in Iceland in the middle of the 19th century. Businesspeople and officials travelling to Denmark had seen them in Copenhagen and decided to introduce the custom back home. Because there were no homegrown evergreen trees, Icelandic people used to make their own trees.
Usually, they were made from a pole with sticks as branches, and they were painted red or green. Candles were put on the branches and decorations were hung from them.
Modern-day Christmas trees
Homemade Christmas trees were common in Icelandic households until well into the 20th century. Even though the real pine trees were gaining ground in the 20th century, they had to be imported at first and therefore were too expensive for many families.
Original decorations included candles, ornaments made from apples and oranges (and sometimes presents), and garlands made out of popcorn or cranberries. Around 1970, Iceland-grown evergreens came on the market, and these days, most people choose an Icelandic tree for their home.
In Heiðmörk Nature Reserve, people can choose and chop down their own Christmas tree every year from a selected area. More and more people also choose artificial trees. Homemade, real, or fake, Christmas trees are everywhere in Iceland.