Like every country, Iceland has its own particular customs and traditions relating to the Christmas and New Year period. Some may seem odd to us and some are, frankly, downright terrifying; but they all combine to make Iceland a great place to visit during the festive period whether you’re travelling to Reykjavik or the capital of North Iceland, Akureyri. We’ve pulled together some of the best traditions to give you an idea of what to expect if you’re visiting Iceland this Christmas…
Christmas in Icelandic translates as Jól, similar to our “yule” or “yuletide”. Jól begins on the 12th of December with the arrival of the first of the Yule Lads (more about them later) and lasts until the 6th of January, similar to our twelfth night. The ‘official’ Christmas celebration takes place on the 24th of December, known as aðfangadagur.
Celebrated on the 23rd of December, St. Thorlakur’s Day is named after the patron saint of Iceland and is the day when most Icelanders decorate their Christmas tree and eat a traditional meal before heading out for a night on the town. A popular dish on Þorláksmessa is fermented skate but its strong taste puts many people off (just like Brussels sprouts, most people only eat skate because it’s a tradition!) These days many people eat Hangikjöt which is salty, smoked lamb or Hamborgarhryggur; roast pork glazed with a sweet sauce made with Coca-Cola. After dinner most people hit the bars or do some last minute Christmas shopping with shops staying open until late.
One of those horrifying folk tales that we thankfully seem to avoid in the UK, Grýla is a giant troll who comes down from her mountain home at Christmastime looking for naughty children to put in her cooking pot! The legend of Grýla is centuries old, she is sometimes described as having a tail or hooves instead of feet, all designed to frighten Icelandic children. She owns a monstrous cat called Jólakötturinn (who eats people who haven’t got any new clothes for Christmas) and has 13 children known as…
Probably Iceland’s most well-known Christmas tradition, the mischievous Yule Lads start arriving from their home in Dimmuborgir 13 days before Christmas Eve, marking the beginning of Christmas in Iceland. The Yule Lads arrive in a particular order, starting with Stekkjarstaur on the 12th of December. Stekkjarstaur is usually translated as Sheep Cote Clod and the rest of the Yule Lads have equally bizarre names including Gully Gawk, Stubby, Spoon-Licker, Pot-Scraper, Bowl-Licker, Door-Slammer, Skyr-Gobbler, Sausage-Swiper, Window-Peeper, Doorway-Sniffer, Meat-Hook and Candle-Stealer. They all have their own characteristics (described by their names) and leave children rewards or punishments depending on if they’ve been naughty or nice! The last of the Yule lads, Kertasníkir, leaves town on the 6th of January, signifying the end of the festive period.
Iceland sells more books per person than any other nation in the world and most are sold from September to November as it has become tradition to buy books as Christmas presents. The enormous amount of book sales in the run up to Christmas has become known as Jólabókaflóð, or the Christmas Book Flood. This is surely a Christmas tradition we could all get on board with especially if you’re spending Christmas Day in Iceland and don’t want to takes lots of large presents on the plane!
Not a tradition as such but if you’re hunting for a White Christmas, Iceland is a pretty good bet. As Akureyri is further north, they tend to get more snow than Reykjavik even though the temperature is not significantly colder. Icelanders have several words for snow such as lausamjöll (powdery snow), hjarn (frozen snow) or hríð (snowstorm).
Akureyri’s Christmas garden is open all year round so it really can be Christmas every day when you visit Iceland! The main attraction is the Christmas House which looks like a gingerbread cottage straight out of a fairy tale and is filled with the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas. The house contains displays of Christmas decorations from around the world, local handicrafts and the world’s biggest advent calendar!
Gleðilegt nýtt ár
Happy New Year! Iceland’s festive traditions extend to New Year as well as Christmas with the main attraction of the evening being the bonfires and fireworks that go on for most of the night but naturally peak around midnight. Icelanders get a little crazy at New Year so expect to see fireworks being let off everywhere, not just at organised displays. They spend a small fortune on fireworks though so your evening is sure to go with a bang!
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