Icelandic Christmas Traditions
Food is central to the Icelandic Christmas experience, and the selection ranges from mouth-watering delicacies to some of the most peculiar smelling dishes you will ever find. Fermented skate, we’re looking at you. Ignoring the foul smelling seafood, there’s plenty of delicious food to be had, just try snacking on buttered laufabrauð coupled with a frosty glass of malt og appelsín to see what I mean!
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 hangikjöt is still enjoyed by many on Christmas day.
Laufabrauð, literally ‘leaf bread’, are round, wafer-thin deep-fried wheat cakes with intricate decorative patterns. They’re delicious served with butter and add a festive touch to Christmas dinner and Christmas parties. During Advent, families and friends often get together to make Laufabrauð as cutting the patterns is delicate and time-consuming work. Frequently they will throw their artistic skills into the mix, resulting in some very fine specimens that are considered too pretty to eat and tied up with red ribbons and hung as decorations.
The baking of cookies for Christmas used to be the barometer of domestic excellence in Iceland. Throughout the country, Icelandic homemakers work overtime to bake a dizzying number of different cookie sorts – and are not above boasting about it. Baking six sorts normally generates applause, 12 sorts is regarded with such awe that it is like announcing you just climbed Mount Everest in high heels.
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, different types of herring, smoked and cured salmon, reindeer pâté, smoked puffin and much, much more … and that’s just the cold dishes. Hot dishes will normally include the ubiquitous smoked lamb, roast pork with rind, rack of ham, turkey, and more. And let’s not even mention the stacked dessert buffet.
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 skate (the fish) that has been sitting in a closed container and allowed to ferment for a month or more. By that time, it has a smell that will clear your sinuses from about a mile away. A main headache is how to get the smell out of your house before the bells start ringing in Christmas. As a result, many people choose to partake of this delicacy in a restaurant, or alternatively cook it in the garage or even outdoors. Predictably, not everyone is partial to this tradition.
Apples and oranges
Iceland’s holiday traditions include shoes in windows, a child-eating cat, fermented skate, and apples. Of all those things, the apples are actually the easiest to explain. Fruit used to be a luxury item, as they all had to be imported to Iceland. They also arrived in Iceland just before Christmas, so they became a natural part of the Christmas celebrations and many of the older generations still fondly remember receiving a gleaming red apple as a Christmas treat.
More recently, Mandarin oranges have replaced apples as the fruit of choice for the holiday. Crates of the small oranges arrive in stores in the weeks leading up to Christmas. We can get Mandarins and apples all year round now but there’s still something special about the fruit at Christmas time.
The essential Christmas drink
Iceland’s traditional Christmas drink is a non-alcoholic mixture of the locally produced Maltöl 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.