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Fermented skate

Þorláksmessa – Do It Right

December 23 is the last day before Christmas in Iceland and the stress of getting everything done in time – the presents, the cards, the food, and the decorations – is beginning to get to people. It’s not all bad though, because mixed in with the stress and anxiety is a Christmassy sense of joy and a healthy dose of commiserating with friends and relatives. You’re all in the same boat! December 23 in Iceland is referred to as Þorláksmessa or The Mass of St Thorlac. St Thorlac was a bishop of Skálholt from 1178 until his death.

Skip the malls and head to Laugavegur

While Kringlan and Smáralind, the biggest shopping malls in Reykjavík, have plenty of great stores for most of your shopping needs, you just can’t beat the Christmassy atmosphere of Laugavegur, the open-air shopping street in the city centre, lined with the colourful little houses Reykjavík is famous for. Plus, the hot chocolate tastes so much better when you come in from the cold. 

Commiserate with your fellow shoppers

If you’re not fluent in Icelandic, it might be interesting for you to know that on Þorláksmessa you only really need to know one sentence to keep up a conversation. Just say “Jæja, ertu búin að öllu?” (“So, have you done everything yet?”). The person you’re talking to will probably get a worried look on their face and start rattling off a list of everything they haven’t, in fact, done yet. All you have to do to keep up your half of the conversation is nod sympathetically every now and then and maybe throw in a cheery <i>Gleðileg jól</i> (Merry Christmas) before leaving. 

Downtown Reykjavík in December

Go downtown, even if you don’t really need to go shopping!

I may be exaggerating a tiny bit. There are people, or so I’ve heard, who have actually finished everything before Þorláksmessa, baked all the cookies, put up all the decorations, and probably finished wrapping all the gifts in October. But even those people come downtown on Þorláksmessa. Some people like to leave one last present unbought and others just take a shamelessly purposeless walk down Laugavegur. It’s the place to be, especially during the evening. So, buy that last present, or just go get a beer or a cup of cocoa, but don’t miss out on the Þorláksmessa experience.

Try some fermented skate

We saved the best for last. You thought this was going to be all nice walks down Laugavegur admiring the Christmas lights and drinking Christmas beer, didn’t you? Well, think again. An integral part of the Þorláksmessa experience is (I swear this is true) eating the most foul-smelling seafood Iceland has to offer, fermented skate. Fish with a cartilaginous skeleton, such as skate and shark, can be fermented for food because of the high amount of naturally occurring chemicals that preserve the fish but cause it to stink in the process. Sounds appetising, right? If you’re interested, many restaurants in Reykjavík offer a skate buffet on Þorláksmessa (usually serving other fish along with it, in case the skate turns out to be too offensive to your taste buds). Also, rumour has it that the taste is slightly better than the smell.

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