Traditions, new and old, are what makes holidays so special. Eating a chocolate Easter egg at Easter, or blowing out the candles on your birthday are the things that take a celebration from nice to festive. Christmas, being the most important holiday of them all in Iceland, is so laden with traditions, it takes us more than a month to cover them all.
The Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and marks the official start of the Christmas season! It is when things start getting magical, with lights shining through the winter darkness, concerts and celebrations, and festive spirits. People decorate their houses, the official city Christmas tree is lit and the city centre is filled with people attending Christmas events and doing their Christmas shopping.
Come late November, Advent lights, arguably the most popular of the Icelandic Christmas decorations, are omnipresent in most Icelandic homes. There are two types of Advent lights: the Advent Wreath with four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent, and the triangle-shaped, seven-candle electric candelabra, which are popular all over Scandinavia.
Christmas trees in Iceland used to be made of wood and decorated with juniper branches to resemble a real Christmas tree, mostly because there just weren’t that many evergreen trees we could cut down. Today most Icelanders use real trees, as opposed to artificial ones. The tradition is to decorate them just a day or two before Christmas, on the 23rd, or even on Christmas Eve day. They then stay up for the 13 days of Christmas and are taken down, along with all other Christmas decorations on January 6th – Twelfth night.
A gift in the shoe
The Icelandic Yule lads, though traditionally known for being troublemakers, have picked up a habit of leaving presents for well behaving children. When the lads start coming to town, one by one, for the last thirteen days before Christmas, children leave their shoe in the window before they go to sleep. When they wake up, they find a gift or a treat in their shoe. If they’ve been good, that is. If they haven’t, all they can expect is an old potato
The book flood
Iceland sells more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and the vast majority of them are sold in the lead-up to Christmas. In Iceland, this is known as the Christmas Book Flood. The tradition in Iceland is that everyone must receive at least one book for Christmas to take to bed on Christmas Eve along with some chocolates. So beginning in November, hundreds of books are published and the talk is all about books, Once Christmas is over and the books have been read, everyone’s a critic, giving their views and opinions of that latest tome and whether it is as good, or better, as the author’s last one.
New Year’s bonfires
On New Year’s Eve, bonfires are lit throughout the country to symbolize the burning of the old year. There’s always a really great atmosphere at these “brennur”, kids with sparklers, happy faces, friends and neighbours mingling, and the heat of the fire mixed with the winter cold. Since the brennur are not always easy for foreign visitors to find, in recent years, tour operators have started organizing special tours to get them involved in the fun.
According to folklore, strange and magical things took place on the Twelfth Night (January 6th) and could be dangerous for humans. Cows started talking (although people were warned not to listen to them because their talk would drive them mad), seals shed their skins and walked as men, and the elves moved house. People make sure to keep every corner of their house well-lit on Twelfth Night in case the elves stop by on their way. Today, the tradition lives on in Twelfth Night bonfires where the “elf king and queen” will often make an appearance. Families flock to the bonfires and sing New Year’s songs, often containing lots of references to elves.