Icelandic Christmas traditions
When I start thinking about Christmas I realize that we Icelanders have quite many Icelandic Christmas traditions, maybe some are not only Icelandic but traditions they are, no matter where they come from. If you plan to spend your Christmas in Iceland or some part of your holiday, then you should learn about Icelandic Christmas traditions. It could help you to enjoy your trip even better.
Somehow I link Christmas to very dark days with a lot of Christmas lights. From early December till the beginning of January you can expect to see a lot of Christmas lights and decorations in Iceland. Icelanders do take their Christmas decoration very seriously. Every year I feel people are starting to decorate earlier. Before it used to be linked to the Advent, people would turn on the first Christmas lights on the first day of Advent. December is the darkest month of the year in Iceland and therefore we are really happy to have Christmas light lights up over the darkest days.
Back in the days, people use to have homemade Christmas trees from wood or other things, now pine trees have become really popular and you can find a tree in almost every home in Iceland. The Christmas tree is decorated with lights, garland, and ornaments etc. They use to be decorated with candles, fruit (apples, oranges) and garland made out of popcorn and cranberries. People also often decorated with small decors, such as Santa Claus statues, reindeer, and all kinds of beautiful things. I recommend you to enjoy your time around town looking at all the beautiful Christmas decor and the beautiful lights the light up our darkest days.
People also make an advent wreath often decorated with some pine tree branches, pine cones, and candles. We also have another type of Advent light which are seven lights arranged in a triangle-shaped candelabra, they are mostly electric nowadays.
Yule Lads or Jólasveinar are figures from Icelandic folklore. In Iceland, we don’t have Santa Claus, we got 13 Yule Lads instead. Our Yule Lads are not exactly like Santa Claus most people know, they are mischievous pranksters. In modern times they have to take the roles of being Santa Claus, the Yule Lads come 13 nights before Christmas one at a time and give presents to kids that behave well. The kids put their shoe on the window and while they are sleeping the Yule Lad arrives and puts a gift in their shoe, if they don’t behave well, they can expect to get a potato in their shoe. The Yule lads are though not only bringing gifts to the children because the real reason they are coming, is to steal or prank the people. Every Yule lad is known for stealing a specific thing or doing a specific prank, for example, one steals Skyr, one steals meet, one steals sausage. Others prank by slamming doors and some lick different kind of kitchen equipment, such as pans and pots. They are generally depicted as wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing but are sometimes shown wearing a red suit like Santa Claus, especially at children’s events. The Yule Lads are told to be the sons of the trolls Grýla and Leppalúði. Grýla is a very big and frightening troll, which loves to eat children that misbehave, her husband is rather lazy and prefers to stay in his cave. The family also has a Christmas cat or Yule cat and he eats children who do not get new clothes for Christmas. Therefore many people have Icelandic Christmas traditions of getting something new to wear for Christmas, I remember getting underwears or pajamas as a kid and most often a new Christmas dress.
The names of our Yule Lads are:
Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod – He harasses sheep and he got very stiff legs.
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk – Hides in gullies waiting to sneak into cowshed to steal milk.
Stúfur – Stubby – Abnormally short, steals pans to eat the leftover crust.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon Licker – He licks wooden spoons (with a long handle for cooking).
Pottaskefill – Pot Scraper – Steals leftovers from pots.
Askasleikir – Bowl Licker – Hides under beds waiting for people to put down their plates so he can steal them (bowls with food, instead of dishes, called askur)
Hurðaskellir – Door Slammer – Likes to slam doors, especially at night time.
Skyrgámur – Skyr Gobbler – Loves skyr, I mean who doesn’t.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper – Steals smoked sausages.
Gluggagæir – Window Peeper – Looks through windows for stuff to steal
Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer – Has a really big nose, which he uses to find Laufabrauð (a type of deep fried bread).
Ketkrókur – Meat Hook – Uses a hook to steal meat.
Kertasníkir – Candle Stealer – Steals candles.
There are a few things you have to try if you spend some time in Iceland over the Holidays.
In Iceland, we make the so-called Laufabrauð sometimes called “snowflake bread”. It’s most often only eaten in the Christmas season. They are small very thin flour cakes that are decorated with patterns cut by using a brass roller, a special one called Laufabrauðsjárn “leaf bread iron”
Then it’s Malt and Appelsín one of the best Icelandic Christmas traditions. Malt and Appelsín is a soda drink mixed with two Icelandic sodas Malt and Appelsín, this is only available in stores for a special occasion such a Christmas and Easter. You’ll have to try it, you’ll find it all the supermarkets in Iceland, it looks like the can on the photo below.
Many people bake all sorts of cookies before Christmas, normally they start baking as early as the first Sunday of Advent, so the family will have enough goodies for the whole month of December. Gingerbread cookies are really common, they are often shaped in many different ways such as hearts, trees, or snowman, we call them Piparkökur and often the kids get to paint them with colorful cream. Some also bake Sara, which is a meringue based chocolate-cream filled and chocolate coated sweets, they are best served slightly frozen.
What do Icelander eat for Christmas I think it varies like everywhere else. I think the most common thing to eat for Christmas are ham (Hamborgarahryggur), smoked lamb (Hangikjöt) or Ptermagant (Rjúpa). Ptermagants are protected here in Iceland and it’s only allowed to shoot them few days in December before Christmas. If you get the chance to taste Rjúpur do it. The most important part of getting a good plate of Rjúpur is the sauce, the sauce is the key.
All of the dishes are prepared with side dishes including potatoes (often caramelized with sugar and butter), beans, apple salad, gravy, and jam. Normally the 24.th of December is spent in the Kitchen cooking and preparing for the Christmas eve.
Icelandic Christmas tradition, of course, varies between families and homes. These are some of my favorite Icelandic Christmas tradition. My most important Icelandic Christmas traditions are though to enjoy the time with family and friends throughout the holiday. Often the weather in Iceland at this time can be quite unpredictable therefore I recommend you to check the weather and road conditions before traveling long distance during this time of the year, in my blog about websites you should know when traveling in Iceland you´ll find all the most helpful websites so that you can have an enjoyable and safe Christmas Holiday and Iceland while enjoying all of our Icelandic Christmas traditions.