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Christmas traditions and celebrations in Iceland

Posted by mandyf on December 11, 2012

The modern day Christmas traditions of Iceland are a unique combination of Christian and ancient pagan Viking beliefs which makes celebrating the holiday unlike any other place in the world. Christmas in Iceland is a family celebration with gift exchanges and even the ceremonial tree trimming everyone takes part in. The tree trimming is a newer concept to Icelandic Christmases as there are very few live trees on the island. Just consider Icelandic television is completely off the air each Christmas Eve from 5:00 until 10:00 P.M. to leave families undisturbed and you can see they take the holiday very seriously.

Icelandic Christmases haven’t always been what they are today. It has only been in the past fifty or so years when the economy has moved forward that many of the modern trappings of the season found there way there. In the past the day was far more family oriented in that since there was little money for excess or gifts a family would combine their efforts to make items (Primarily wool goods) they could trade for their Christmas supplies. Nowadays however they tend to just run to the store or order whatever it is they want, however some families still cling to the older tradition of bartering goods they produced to acquire their wants.

To truly get a grip on Christmas in Iceland one must go all the way back to the 12th century and learn a little about St. Thorlakur’s day which was (and still is as Iceland’s patron saint) celebrated on December 23rd. Like in many other nations the Vatican used the combination of St. Thorlakur’s day (Officially canonized in 1985 by Pope John Paul II) to try to ease people away from pagan traditions to Catholic traditions. Over time the line between the two days became blurred much like All Hallows Eve in other nations and the two days transitioned into one.

One of the biggest and best known traditions is the serving of skate hash. Skate hash has a strong ammonia odor which makes it a dish that isn’t to many people’s taste. As they say though just because it is on the table doesn’t mean it’s eaten! The tradition of serving skate hash originated on the West Fjords and worked it’s way around the countryside. The reason this less than popular dish was served is because at that time in history meat could not be eaten on the last day of the Catholic Christmas celebration. As centuries passed and Iceland converted to Lutheranism the tradition survived in art due to familiarity and because it is a very simple dish to prepare.


Jol is a celebration which begins at 6:00 P.M. on Christmas Eve or Aofangadagur in which families make their way to the local parish for church services. When they return home the have a huge meal which centers around smoked mutton or rock ptarmigan with rice porridge and raisins. Laufbraud which is a deep fried bread is cut into intricate patterns and served with the meal. People have begun deep frying the lauftbraud and serving them in a similar fashion to potato chips. To round the meal off jolgrautur is served which contains a lucky almond.

Of course there is more to the traditions than just the food, there is the retelling of the ancient legends with a basis in the nations earlier paganistic faith such as Jolakottur who is the Yule Cat. It is said this began in other Nordic nations but it still lives on in Iceland. Jolkottur is related as a fearsome cat that lies in wait for lazy humans to eat which was a great motivational story especially for children. It is said if someone did not do their share to help the village finish the many tasks surrounding the fall wool shearing and preparation needed to be ready for Christmas the lazy person would receive no new clothing and might end up as a meal for Jolkottur!

There is also the favorite legend of the the thirteen Yule Lads or Jolasveinar who are much nicer than their parents Gryla and Leppaluoi who are flesh eating monsters. The lads begin visiting villages on December 12th one by one until finally on Christmas morning all are present. Each one has something they are known for which is irritating for the villagers such as “Window Peeper” who obviously stares in windows, “Door Slammer” who loves making late night noise, and “Meat Hooker” who steals roasts from refrigerators. Of course if children have been good they see little mischief come their way and will instead find a gift in their shoes if they leave them on the windowsill. A bad child however may be disappointed to find what is left in his shoe is a potato or other reminder to shape up! Christmas Day they all begin their journey back to the mountains from whence they cam one by one until all are gone on January 6th.

On January 6th when all the Lads have found their way home tremendous feasts are served, neighbors, friends and families visit one another, and bonfires are burned as a prelude to fireworks displays around the country. As you can see Christmas traditions in Iceland have been unique in maintaining strong ties to their ancient heritage while making room for newer beliefs and traditions as well. The best thing is Christmas is not celebrated as just one day but rather 25 spectacular days of fellowship!


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