Christmas in Iceland is tightly interwoven with folklore and pagan traditions. It’s a time when mountain-dwelling characters and monsters will come into town and mischievous pranksters leave gifts for children. It’s also one of the most magical times of year to visit the country, when the dark days are lit up by thousands of twinkling fairy lights and buildings are blanketed by thick white snow. If you’re into your Christmas festivities, you’ll want to learn a little more about Christmas traditions in Iceland. The Christmas period lasts for a tremendous 26 days every year, making it one of the longest in the world.
Icelandic Christmas Traditions
1. It all started with ‘Jól’
Before Christianity came to Iceland, people celebrated the winter solstice, known as ‘Jól’. This marked the end of long nights and dark, cold and harsh days with only around four hours of sunlight. Today, the whole Christmas period is referred to as Jól, encompassing the New Year celebrations too.
2. There are 13 Santa Clauses
Why have one Santa Clause when you can have 13? In Iceland, each Santa or ‘Jólasveinar’ bears a name that reflects his traits. Favourites include ‘Doorslammer’, ‘Candlesnatcher’, ‘Windowpeeker’ and ‘Sausagestealer’. As you might have noticed, they’re all a little bit more mischievous than traditional St. Nicholas.
You’ll need to leave your shoes on the windowsill at night to ensure you get a good present from each of them. If you’re naughty, you’ll end up with an old potato in your shoe. Each Santa Claus arrives every day until Christmas Eve. The first Santa Claus, known as Yule Lad, arrives 13 days before Christmas, on the 11th of December.
3. December 23rd is pretty important too
December 23rd is called Þorláksmessa or St. Thorlakur’s Day. St. Thorlakur, Iceland’s most famous and beloved Saint, died on 23rd December. In respect, most people will avoid eating anything too rich or heavy, sticking to skata, fermented fish, instead.
This is traditionally when the Christmas tree goes up too, with most families decorating after the light dinner. It’s also a big day for last-minute shopping and most stores will stay open until midnight.
4. Christmas Eve is for families
Christmas Eve, December 24th, is called Aðfagadagur in Iceland. Generally speaking, the shops will stay open in the morning, then everyone heads home to their families in the afternoon. Celebrations officially start at 6 pm, a tradition leftover from pre-Christianity when a new day would officially begin at 6 pm, rather than midnight. Dinner will usually feature lamb or ptarmigan bird, boiled and sugar-coated potatoes and pickled red cabbage, followed by a rice pudding dessert served with whipped cream. The chef will hide an almond in the bowl and the person who finds the almond should receive excellent luck all year.
Then, the exciting bit – in Iceland people open their presents on Christmas Eve.
5. New clothes and plenty of books
In Iceland, tradition holds that everyone should receive a new piece of clothing and a book for Christmas. The sharing of books at Christmas is called ‘Jolabokaflod’ or ‘Jólabókaflóð’ which translates as ‘Christmas Floods of Books’. The traditions started during World War II when books were one of the only items that weren’t rationed. On Christmas Eve, it’s common for people to curl up with their new book and a cup of hot chocolate.
Traditionally, you should also wear your new Christmas outfit on Christmas Day, otherwise, you risk being eaten by the Christmas Cat. This cat is a mountain-dwelling vicious cat that lirks in the snowy countryside for the whole year and only comes crawling down at Christmas to nibble on those who fail to wear their new clothes.
6. Food, glorious food
Christmas Day or Jóladagur is a day for eating too much with your family. The main meal usually features a leg of roast lamb or ‘Rjúpa’, a gamebird. ‘Laufabrauð’ or leaf bread is another speciality, made from thin sheets of dough cut into delicate patterns and fried. Each family often has their own patterns for the Laufabrauð.
It’s also common to visit cemeteries with a wreath, candles or lights. As a result, Icelandic cemeteries are beautifully lit up during the Christmas Holidays.
7. January 6th marks the end of all the fun festivities
Þrettándinn, the thirteenth day of Christmas, marks the final day of the Christmas holidays. This is considered the most magical time of the year when cows talk, seals turn into humans and elves move house.
Icelanders will usually clean their house in advance of the big day, take down the Christmas tree and celebrate with a bonfire finale.