It's December and we all know what that means. Christmas is just around the corner and where better to celebrate the holidays than in the winter wonderland of Iceland?
Christmas is the biggest event of the year in Iceland. It is absolutely crazy how much effort and ambition we put into celebrating Christmas, or Jól as we say it in Icelandic.
There are so many fun things going on during the Christmas season and throughout December. And if there is nothing on the calendar, Icelanders have a way to add their own tradition to fill in the few gaps.
To help travelers getting into the holiday spirit we´re going to go over some fun Christmas traditions in Iceland. Starting with food and drinks as we go over where, what and when Christmas is celebrated in Iceland.
The traditional Icelandic Christmas Drink
When it comes to drinks and drinking culture at Christmas,Iceland has two main traditions worth mentioning.
First is the official Christmas drink. In Iceland that’s not Coke Cola. We do not even believe in Santa Claus, we have the 13 Yule Lads and the child eating Christmas cat. The traditional Christmas drink in Iceland is called Jólaöl or Christmas ale.
Interestingly Jólaöl is actually a mixture of two drinks. One is Malt, which is a sweet malty drink. It is thick and dark, similar to Guinness but sweet as a cola drink. The other drink is an orange soda called Appelsín.
There is no recipe for the Christmas ale other than just mixing these two drinks. Some like it half and half, others more of the other. The only rule is that it must be from a specific brand called Egils.
It is a non-alcoholic drink so renters and other rental car drivers can have as much Jólaöl as they want while traveling in Iceland during Christmas.
Icelandic Christmas beers
For those more interested in beverages containing alcohol there is no need to worry. There is plenty of drinking going on in Iceland during Christmas.
Christmas beers are a huge part of the holiday season in Iceland. Each year, there are up to a hundred new special Christmas beers available.
There is even a special day called the J-day, when the Jólabjór (e. Christmas beer) is allowed to be sold on draft at bars and pubs. On this occasion many head downtown for a special Christmas beer pub crawl.
Christmas beer is only sold for a limited time. From November and throughout December. During this short time beer consumption skyrockets as Icelanders and visitors start drinking various types of Christmas beers.
Drinking of Christmas beer is also much more socially acceptable than just drinking regular beer. Therefore, a lot more drinking takes place.
There are two ways we recommend trying if you are in Iceland in December. First is going to the pubs and sitting down for a few Christmas beers with the locals.
The second is going to the liquor store and buying many different types of Christmas beers. This is popular among Icelanders where they try many different types of Christmas beers and rate them.
The selection seems endless and many brewers are really creative when it comes to adding their special Christmas taste to the beer. There is chocolate, ginger bread, smoked lamb and even green peas flavored beer.
We recommend joining this fun Icelandic Christmas tradition.
There are non-alcoholic Christmas beers which can be bought at supermarkets but those with alcohol are only available at liquor stores and bars.
Icelandic Christmas food
There is more to Iceland´s Christmas cuisine than just beers. We also have our own interesting tradition concerning Christmas food. Let's find out what is for dinner in Iceland during Christmas.
Christmas Eve Dinner
Christmas Eve is the main day. It is when we open presents and eat “the” Christmas dinner.
Most popular Christmas dinner is a Christmas ham called “Hamborgarhryggur”. Wild Rock ptarmigan are also popular. But you have to hunt them yourself if you want it for dinner.
Typical side dishes are glazed potatoes, pickled red cabbage, green peas, corn and gravy. Along with other sides such as salad and fruits.
Traditionally, Christmas dinner starts at 18:00 (6am) and not a minute over or before. Or else Christmas is ruined. This is followed by opening of presents.
Christmas Day Dinner
On Christmas day Icelanders are much more conservative when it comes to food. Almost every Icelanders has smoked lamb on Christmas Day.
Smoked lamb is the original Icelandic Christmas dinner and has been the preferred choice at Christmas since the time of the first settlers.
It is served with similar sides as the once on Christmas Eve but with one major difference. The potatoes are not glazed and the gravy is a white sauce with potatoes traditionally in the sauce when served.
Both the smoked lamb and the Christmas Eve roast are also usually served with the traditional Christmas ale.
Saint Þorlákur and Fermented Skate
If you find a strange and rather unpleasant smell in Iceland just before Christmas there's no need to be alarmed. It's probably just someone cooking skate.
Not everything smells and tastes delicious around Christmas in Iceland. Of course not, we would never allow that. This is Iceland. We are proud to have some of the most unpleasant food in the world.
December 23rd is called “Þorláksmessa” or Saint Þorlaks day and on that day it is tradition to eat fermented skate. And just like the famous fermented shark it has an extremely strong smell and taste.
Usually served with potatoes, rye bread and covered with liquid lamb fat. While most foreigners find this dish very unappealing, due to the smell and taste, it is a popular tradition in Iceland.
It is said to cleanse the senses and often involves drinking. We recommend giving it a go.
Opening hours around Christmas
In the old days, before Iceland became a popular tourist destination, everything was closed during Christmas. Including shops, supermarkets, restaurants and even gas stations.
Luckily, this has changed over the past years. Although there might be some limitations, most of these services are available at some point during the holidays. Especially in Reykjavik.
Large gas stations and supermarkets in cities have Christmas opening hours and many restaurants in downtown Reykjavik remain open for Christmas.
On Christmas day, December 25, service is usually low, but it depends on where you are in Iceland. Once you get out the capital area service becomes less likely to be available.