Christmas in Iceland
Ho ho ho, it’s about to be the most wonderful time of the year again, Christmas! A holiday that is known for spending time with your loved ones. The normal in most countries is lighting the Christmas tree and giving presents. While this does happen in Iceland, there are also special traditions and tales that are different from the rest of the world. Keep reading to learn all about Christmas in Iceland.
Christmas days & Þorláksmessa
You may hear the word Jóladagar when visiting Iceland during Christmas. Jóladagar takes place on the days around Christmas. It is known to be a quiet time as everyone prepares for the holidays. Icelanders take this time to get the ingredients for their Christmas meals or to set up their cheery holiday decorations. If you are a last-minute buyer, this is also the time to get your shopping completed.
Then on December 23rd Þorláksmessa or St. Thorlakur's Day takes place. The day honors Þorláksmessa, Iceland’s saint. He died on December 23rd and Icelanders pay their respects to him every year. They do this by not eating large meals the day before Christmas. Instead, you will find them dining on Skata, which is a fermented fish, and other light options.
You may also hear the term Pagan during Christmas in Iceland and we are going to explain what that means to Icelanders. The Icelandic word "Jol" also means Christmas. Jol was celebrated in Iceland and the other Nordic countries prior to the region becoming Christianised. During these “Pagan times”, Iceland celebrated the days becoming longer after the winter solstice took place, between December 20th-23rd.
Today, the religion in Iceland varies, from Lutheran to Atheist. There are also people who fully believe in Paganism, which is a tradition that honors old Norse gods. You can learn more about Pagan Christmas by checking out our Pagan episode of Iceland Is Weird But So Great.
Icelandic Christmas Traditions
Each country has special traditions when it comes to Christmas. Let’s learn about how Icelanders celebrate the holiday.
The Annual Yule Book Flood
The Christmas book flood, or Yule book flood, is when new books are released every year. This happens in the months leading up to Christmas. The books are purchased and gifted to Icelanders on Christmas Eve. Once the gift is opened, it is a tradition for everyone to sit around and read them together, normally while sipping hot chocolate around the Christmas Tree. It is a unique and amazing tradition as it gives the people of Iceland a gift of knowledge. During the months of Jólabókaflóðið, books fly off of the shelves throughout Iceland, which is how The Annual Book Flood got its name.
The 13 Yule Lads
Who are the Yule Lads? They are 13 Christmas Elves that take turns visiting the children of Iceland on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. At night during this time, children will put one of their shoes on their windowsill. If you are good, the Yule Lad will leave candy. If you are bad, the Yule Lads will fill the shoe with disgusting rotting potatoes.
The story of the Yule Lands began in the 1700s but they weren’t as nice back then. In 1742 parents were banned from telling their children horrendous stories about the elves. They did this to make sure their children would be on the good list. However, it became too much and some of the stories began to get out of control. So since then, they are jolly lads who are also known for being mischievous.
Each one of the elves has a different personality and unique story!
- Sheep-Cote Clod tries to suckle yews in farmer's sheep sheds.
- Sausage Swiper will steal your sausage and then eat it.
- Gully Gawk steals foam from buckets of cow milk.
- Window Peeper is creepy and enjoys peering through your window so he can steal the items inside.
- Stubby is short and steals food from frying pans.
- Door Sniffer has a huge nose and loves stolen baked goods
- Pot Scraperwill steals unwashed pots and licks them clean.
- Bowl Licker will steal bowls of food from under the bed.
- Meat Hook will steal any meat left out, especially smoked lamb.
- Door Slammer is known to stomp around and slam doors, keeping everyone awake.
- Skyr Gobbler will eat up all the Icelandic yogurt, Skyr.
- Candle Beggar takes candles whenever he has the opportunity.
- Spoon Licker is known solely for licking spoons.
They all have weird personalities but are also very loved by Icelanders. They are truly iconic during Christmas in Iceland. Then, on January 6th, they retreat back to the mountains where they hide out until next Christmas!
Want to learn more about them? Then watch our Yule Lad Episode of Iceland Is Weird But So Great!
While the elves have gotten friendlier over the years, the infamous Gryla has not. She is a creature who comes down from the mountains on Christmas to boil bad children alive. Gryla is known to be very tall and downright terrifying. Icelandic parents will tell naughty children “You better be good or Gryla is going to pay you a visit”. It may seem a little bold, but it is known to work!
Gryla also has a husband named Leppalúði, but he is usually nowhere to be found. He is rumored to be lazy, which causes him to stay home while Gryla strikes terror into the eyes of Iceland’s children.
It gets even worse as her blood-sucking black cat, also known as the Christmas Cat, comes along with her. The awful cat is known to make its way around the country, eating anyone who is not wearing one piece of new clothing. Why new clothing? In the olden days, new clothes were given only to children who were well-behaved. So if you didn’t have them, it meant you did something wrong.
You will be able to spot statues or decorations of Gryla, Leppalúði, and the Christmas Cat all around Iceland. Even though the story can be a bit frightening, she is still a part of Christmas in Iceland, and we are totally here to support it!
Icelanders love Christmas songs like the rest of the world, but they also have their own ones too. Here are some of our favorite Icelandic Christmas songs.
The song “Jólahjól”, or Christmas bicycle, by Sniglabandið. A hopeful song about an awkwardly shaped Christmas present under the tree. With lyrics of “Wonder if it’s a Christmas bike? Wonder if it's a bike Christmas?” it's hard not to sing along.
Sigga Beinteins sings the popular hit “Nei, Nei, ekki um jólin” or No, no, not at Christmas. The song highlights the everyday troubles of life and how you are not allowed to complain about them on Christmas. “Why isn’t it Christmas every day? Every moment, like a beautiful song” are just some of the holiday lyrics you will enjoy in this tune.
Things To Do When Visiting Iceland During Christmas
Get in the holiday spirit by visiting these remarkable places in Iceland during your holiday trip!
Reykjavik Christmas Tree
Visit the giant spruce tree that sits in front of the parliament building in Reykjavik. Every year the tree is lit a few weeks before Christmas. The tree comes from the city of Oslo annually and the lighting of the tree becomes a staple during Christmas. Walk the streets of Reyjavik while enjoying the humongous tree that is decorated with twinkling lights.
Yule-lads in Dimmuborgir
Head to North Iceland during Christmas to visit the Yule lads in Dimmuborgir. This is where our favorite 13 elves are rumored to live. But why here? Well, Dimmuborgir is known as the Dark Fortress at Mývatn. This area has soaring lava rock formations that the Yule Lads love to play on.
They live in a specific dark cave that you can visit, it is known as the “Cave of the Yule Lads”. The Yule Lads sleep in their cave during the summer months and are never seen during this time. But in December they are in full force, causing chaos around the whole area.
You may even spot them on December 7th at Mývatn Nature Baths, which is when they are rumored to take their only bath of the year. Visiting Dimmuborgir is a trip of its own, spotting the elves is just an added bonus!
Akureyri Christmas House
Another treasure in Northern Iceland is the Christmas House located in Akureyri. This special house is open year-round and has multiple floors of goodies for you to purchase. This includes their famous Christmas trinkets and also decorations, food, music, books, art and so much more.
They are also home to the large tower that is rumored to be the world’s largest advent calendar. The windows have numbers that tell how many days are left until Christmas. The artwork on the walls is amazing and painted by Icelandic artist Sunna Björk Hreiðarsdóttir.
Don’t forget to visit the Christmas Garden which has a small replica of an old Icelandic turf church. Where you can make a wish for the future children of Iceland at the Wishing Well of Unborn Children. There is even a tree that has stars at the end of its branches to honor those that have not been born yet. The Christmas House is special for so many reasons and is a must-see during your Christmas visit to Iceland.
Try A Christmas Ale
Reykjavik is known for its vast beer scene, so of course, you can find a variety of Christmas Ales here. We recommend stopping by Skúli Craft Bar. They have around fourteen beers on tap and you can ask them what seasonal ales they have.
Try the ORA Jólabjór Winter Ale at RVK Brewing Company. This medium dark, mild and sweet Winter Ale is infused with Christmas using an Icelandic classic: ORA Green Beans and ORA Red Cabbage. A weird mix that provides a delicious taste.
If you are visiting Northern Iceland stop by Einstök Ölgerð Brewery in Akureyri. Their Icelandic Winter Ale is a seasonal beer that is the perfect brew for the season. It is brewed with hand-cut whisky-curled spruce and smoked Icelandic barley. Amazing flavors that will quickly get you in the holiday spirit.
Every December Iceland’s favorite square gets dolled up for Christmas. Ingólfur Square in Reykjavik has a seasonal winter ice skating rink that looks like something right out of a movie. You can ice skate outside with Christmas lights sparkling all around you.
Then walk around Ingólfur Square’s Christmas Market. A charming holiday market that sells gifts and holiday trinkets. Did we mention the market and ice skating rink has free admission too? All you have to do is rent the skates and helmets to enjoy your own personal winter wonderland.
Have A Christmas Dinner
There are plenty of restaurants throughout Iceland to enjoy an authentic Christmas dinner on the days leading up to the holiday. Most of them start serving their special menu in November until late December. Some of the menus are prefixed while others offer Christmas Buffets for a set cost. There are so many delicious options that we could not just pick one. Read our list of the best restaurants to eat Christmas dinner In Iceland.
Visit The Christmas Village
Iceland has its very own Christmas Village. You can visit it in Hafnarfjörður, which is an eighteen-minute drive south of Reykjavik. The village sits in Thorsplan Square and is a darling Christmas Market where you can enjoy shopping and live entertainment. You will be surrounded by a village of Christmas Houses that will sell you delicious food and hot drinks.
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