Christmas in Iceland: Important days and strange traditions
Christmas is a very special time of the year in Iceland. Like in most countries it´s when family and friends come together and celebrate. However Iceland has its own unique Christmas traditions, which you might just find interesting.
On the surface Christmas in Iceland might not seem much different than any other holiday season in the world. But there is a lot more to our “”Jól” than you might know.
Let’s get to know Christmas in Iceland a little better so you can experience them too!
The First day of Advent
Advent is not really celebrated in Iceland. Not more than every other Sunday for most. Except on the first day of Advent. In Iceland it is a tradition to put up Christmas decorations.
It is when the holiday season begins officially for many. Christmas markets open, decorations are put up and some even put up the family Christmas tree.
If you´re a fan of Christmas decorations, or just bright lights, you should go to Iceland in December.
The Icelandic winter is long and dark so we can´t wait to brighten up the day with our Christmas lights. Due to the few hours of daylight we usually put them up at the end of November, or around the first of Advent.
Electricity is also very cheap in Iceland, so it does not cost much to put up a few extra lights for the holidays. Or hundreds, like we do here.
Therefore, the streets are lit up and both public buildings and private houses are covered in lights of all colors.
The number of lights and ambition which is put into the decorations has impressed visitors from all over the world. It is unlike anything else in the world!
December 11th to 24th - The 13 Yule Lads
One of the strangest Christmas traditions in Iceland is our version of Santa Claus. Here there is not one Santa Claus, but a whole group called the Yule lads.
The Yule Lads are 13 and start appearing one by one on December 11 until the 24th. They do not have much in common with Santa Claus other than they have the same name in Icelandic, “Jólasveinn” simply meaning Christmas guy, and they give children gifts.
The Yule Lads are in fact brothers which live in the mountains of Iceland. The Yule Lads all have different characteristics and identity. Mostly describing their disturbing and criminal behavior. For example, Spoon Licker, Door Slammer and Candle Snatcher.
To receive a gift from the lads, children place their shoe in the window sill at night and while they sleep a Yule Lad will leave a small gift in the shoe. That is if they have been good. If not, they will get a potato in the shoe.
If you think having 13 Santa Clauses is weird, wait just until you hear their backstory.
The Christmas Cat
As mentioned, the Icelandic Yule Lads live in the mountains of Iceland, only to descend in the days leading to Christmas. For the rest of the year, they hang out in a cave with their mother and their cat.
Their mother is called Grýla and she also only appears around Christmas. Grýla is a monstrous troll who kidnaps and eats children which have behaved badly throughout the year.
The family pet is called the Christmas cat. It is a giant black cat which also likes to eat children at Christmas. But the Christmas Cat only eats children who do not get new clothes before Christmas.
That’s why it is highly important that all children get new clothes before Christmas in Iceland. Or else they might end up being eaten by the evil Christmas Cat.
December 23rd – Saint Þorláks day
The day before Christmas Icelanders like to get together and eat fermented skate. Just like the famous fermented shark it also has a very strong smell, which most find very disgusting.
The taste is also very strong but if you can get around the smell, it's maybe not as bad as you think. Eating skate is for many a social event rather than a meal as friends, family and co-workers get together for this unique and most unpleasant feast.
This often involves a bit of drinking, and some say it is good to have something this bad to appreciate all the delicious Christmas food they are about to have for the next few days.
December 24th – Christmas Eve
This is when Icelander celebrates Christmas with a fine dinner and opening of presents.
Dinner is at 18:00 and not a minute before or after. It must start at precisely 6 am! There is no traditional Christmas Eve dinner, but the most popular food is Christmas ham served with glazed potatoes, green peas, pickled red cabbage and gravy.
Eating rice pudding is a popular tradition that many families enjoy on this day. There is a game where an almond is placed in one bowl and whoever gets the almond wins and gets an extra Christmas present.
After dinner it's time to open Christmas gifts.
December 25th – Christmas Day
Traditionally, Christmas day is celebrated by families gathering for dinner. On this day a larger family unit than on Christmas Eve are together.
Unlike Christmas Eve there is a traditional Christmas Day food in Iceland. Almost everyone has smoked lamb with white sauce, potatoes, green peas, pickled red cabbage and leaf bread.
December 26 – Second Christmas
Although this is a red day in the calendar it is not as serious a holiday as the last two days.
For many this is the day to have fun with friends. Often getting together and play, board games, watching the English premier league and other social activities.
In the spirit of having fun there is one well established tradition on this day. In most towns there is a Christmas dance. A change to get really drunk and celebrate the holidays with your fellow community.
The strange part about this tradition is that the dance can only start after midnight, as it cannot be on a red day. Also, if it's not on a weekend most people have to work the day after. A tough day for many.
December 31st – New Year’s Eve
There is no better place on earth to spend New Year's Eve than Iceland. It is absolutely amazing.
To start with Icelanders, buy and fire up a ridiculous number of fireworks each year. Last year 700 tons of fireworks were fired up in a matter of minutes.
There is a good reason for this insane number of explosives. Fireworks are sold to the public and are used to raise funds for many social programs. Most notably the rescue squads, which are the largest sellers of fireworks in Iceland.
Due to this, places such as Reykjavik are among the best places in the world to witness fireworks on New Year's Eve.
Beside selling hundreds of tons of explosives to the drunken public there is another strange tradition in Iceland at New Years Eve.
At 11 am everything goes silent. The streets are empty as the most watched tv program in Iceland is broadcasted. It is a 50 minutes long show where comedians make fun of the past year events. This is a holy time as over 90% of Icelanders sit to watch.
After that we start blasting the year goodbye with nationwide fireworks displays.
January 6th – The thirteenth
The end of Christmas is celebrated in Iceland. It is not a public holiday, but it is loaded with traditions, but old and new.
The day is full of mystery. It is when elves appear among people. Often on crossroads, as they try to lure travelers to them. So, if you´re lost in Iceland on the Thirteenth, do not follow some strangely beautiful people. You might never return, or at least not with your sanity.
It is also the day where animals are said to be able to speak. You can feel free talking to a sheep if you can find one.
In the spirit of this old tale, the end of Christmas is celebrated with a bonfire in most towns where the elf king and queen lead a parade of elves, trolls, and Yule lads.
Afterwards fireworks lit up the sky for the last time until next New Year´s.
A Christmas Trip to Iceland
A Christmas holiday in Iceland is also an opportunity to enjoy many of our greatest attractions. In winter you can see the Northern lights and what better time to warm up in our natural hot springs.
So, why not book a rental car and take a trip to the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle or other natural wonders while here for the holidays.