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Celebrating Christmas in Iceland

"Gleðileg jól" to you from Iceland this Christmas.

Merry Christmas from Iceland - "Gleðileg jól" to you.

The Icelandic Christmas period is an intriguing mixture of religious practice and traditional folklore, beginning on 23 December and ending on the Epiphany, 6 January. As many countries do, Iceland celebrates Christmas mostly with family focused meals and gifts to loved ones, but unlike most countries that have a single Father Christmas / Santa Claus character, Icelandic children are fortunate enough to be visited by 13 Yule Lads. These are magical people who come from the mountains in Iceland and each day from 12 December to Christmas Eve, a different Yule Lad (Jólasveinn) comes to give presents to the children.

The Yule Lad tradition first came to Iceland in the 17th century - they were the sons of Grýla and Leppalúði, a couple of child-eating, bloodthirsty ogres!! Clearly - these little fellows are up to some mischief as you can see by their names:

Þvörusleikir - Pot Scraper Licker
Pottasleikir - Pot Licker
Askasleikir - Bowl Licker
Hurðaskellir - Door Slammer
Skyrgámur - Skyr Gobbler (Skyr, an Icelandic yoghurt)
Bjúgnakrækir - Sausage Snatcher
Gluggagægir - Window Peeper
GáttaÞefur - Doorway Sniffer

They leave little presents for children in shoes placed on the windowsill. If children have been naughty during that day, they might leave a rotten potato or little message telling them to be good. They start going home on Christmas Day, with the last one leaving on the 6 January.

Decorations & Christmas Lights during an Icelandic Christmas

The lights across the shopping streets in Iceland get turned on during November and the streets start to enjoy the festive air of people ready celebrate the years end, snow or no snow. At the start of December, you can join the hunt for the Yule lads (Christmas creatures). Thirteen of these creatures take up residence in and around various places in Reykjavík, including the city centre. The game, which is set-up as a treasure hunt, invites participants to hunt for the Christmas Creatures and answer a few simple Creature related questions.

There is now a terrific Christmas food market that is a collaboration of Reykjavík’s finest restaurateurs coming together, creating their version of fine dining street food. The market has an emphasis on the traditional Icelandic Christmas food – but with a twist.

Another lovely option to get into the Christmas spirit is the Three Tenors concert at Ingólfstorg Square on the evening of the 23 Dec. This yearly concert has attracted a lot of people, as it created an atmosphere of the true Christmas spirit. The concert starts at 21:00 and the shops in Reykjavík City Centre are open until 23:00 this last night before the holidays.

Like in Finland, cemeteries are often lit up and decorated with Christmas lights over Christmas.

Traditional days during Christmas in Iceland

Þorláksmessa - St. Thorlakur's Day - December 23

Iceland's major Saint is 'heilagur Þorlákur Þórhallsson', or 'St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson', the Bishop of Skálholt. December 23 is the day on which he died. On St. Thorlakur's Day, the main custom is eating of a simple meal of fermented skata or skate. It is a pretty powerful dish to try - the strong ammonia smell of a well-prepared skate should take your breath away and thoroughly clean your sinuses. The Yule (or Christmas) tree is usually decorated on this day. This is also a big shopping day for last minute gifts, with stores remaining open until midnight.

Aðfangadagur - Christmas Eve / Yule Eve

Celebrations start at Iceland at 6.00pm ON THE DOT on Yule Eve. This may have come from an old Icelandic tradition, when a new day started at 6.00pm not midnight. Icelandic children open their presents after the evening meal on Aðfangadagur. This is when the Yule celebrations really start!

Jóladagur - Christmas Day / Yule Day

Jóladagur is usually celebrated with the extended family. The main Yule meal is 'Hangikjöt', a leg of roast lamb. Sometimes 'Rjúpa' (Rock Ptarmigan a sea bird) is also eaten. Another Yule meal speciality is 'Laufabrauð' or leaf bread. This is made of thin sheets of dough cut into delicate patterns and fried. Each family often has their own patterns for the Laufabrauð.

Home baked cookies are a big part of the day - traditionally, the housewives were judged on how many varieties of cookies they could present on their Christmas table. These days, shop bought cookies are acceptable, phew!

Between Christmas and New Year's Eve, Icelanders love to get out & about. The bars are open longer than usual on the second day of Christmas, and the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is usually packed with concerts and parties.

Gamlárskvöld / Nýársdagur - New Year's Eve / New Year's Day

This is one of the most important nights of the year in Iceland and there are several magical traditions that are supposed to happen on it! Cows are meant to be able to talk, seals take on human form, the dead rise from their graves, and the Elves move house. Expect glitter, frocks, bonfires, fireworks, parties & then more fireworks. The firework show is called 'sprengja út árið' or 'blowing out the year'.

Enjoying Christmas in Iceland with the locals

On the lead up to Christmas, you can well and truly enjoy traditional Icelandic Christmas buffet feasts. These are very popular and you do need to book well in advance. On Christmas Eve, there are some restaurants open - Restaurant Reykjavik does a great job of keeping the atmosphere pumping!

Going further afield, Viðeyjarstofa in Viðey Island, just a short sail from Reykjavík, is Iceland’s oldest stone building. The restaurant offers a fantastic Christmas menu in charming settings, away from the hustle and bustle of Reykjavík’s busy city centre.

The menu includes delicacies such as goose breast, reindeer paté, Icelandic langoustine, and salmon with orange and cardamoms.

You can also enjoy a Viking inspired Christmas meal at the Fjörukráin hotel & restaurant. Or perhaps head to Reykjavik's revolving restaurant,Perlan for a more elegant, fine dining experience.

On Christmas Day, expect a quiet day in Iceland - head out for a walk, explore your area to find what is open for meals (more restaurants will open on Christmas Day for dinner) and visit the harbour for some ice-skating with Santa. Contact us for details about putting together a unique Christmas in Iceland tour  for you.