How to Celebrate Icelandic Christmas

Icelanders go big on Christmas. Not only do we like to give big gifts but Icelandic Christmas goes on 13 days. Yes you read that correctly, Icelandic Christmas goes on for 13 days. Like elsewhere in the western world Christmas celebrations and preparations start obnoxiously early but we Icelanders try to extend the ancient solstice festivities for as long as possible. There are some quirks to Icelandic Christmas and the purpose of this article is give you the information needed to have a merry Icelandic Christmas.

Icelandic Christmas Tip No. 1: Decorate your windows with jewish loooking lights

A visitor to Iceland in December might think that there is a large number of jews living in Iceland since Icelanders typically decorate their windows with lights that resemble the Jewish Hanukkah lights. This is not the case however, these lights were apparently brought to Iceland by an illustrious businessman from Sweden in the sixties. The story goes that he bought a few handmade lights for his aunts but pretty soon everybody had to have one. Needless to say, he made a fortune on this rather lucky break. If something catches on in homogenous Iceland, well it takes off big time! Confusingly, Icelanders also prepare wreaths with four candles. The candles are lit on every Sunday on the advent.

Aðventuljós
Advent Lights

Icelandic Christmas Tip No. 2: Read Your Bible through a Flatbread and then Deep Fry it.

Many Icelanders prepare a special kind of bread called Laufabrauð or literally “Leaf Bread” These are flat and thin cakes that are decorated with carvings and then deep fried. So, no this stuff won´t fit into your low carb lifestyle at all. The leaf-bread originated in the north of Iceland and probably “descended” from thick sweet bread that was made before Christmas when meal was plentiful. But from the 17th or 18th century onwards, meal became a scarce luxury so the bread made before Christmas became really thin. Actually it is said that you should be able to read the bible through the cake before it is cooked. This is just a rather sad reminder of how bad things were in Iceland just a few generations ago.

We forgot to try to read the bible through that Laufabrauð before we deep fried it.
We forgot to try to read the bible through that Laufabrauð before we deep fried it.

Christmas Tip No. 3: Expect Gifts from Reformed Trolls

Yet another quirk of Icelandic Christmas are the Icelandic Yule lads. We have covered them in another entry but it suffices to say that A)Icelanders don´t have one “Santa Claus” but 13 of them and B) originally these were quite terrifying lot. Along with the horrendous Yule cat and their troll parents they were the terror of Icelandic children everywhere. They have mellowed out quite a bit and now they bring children gifts on the night they arrive before Christmas.

Skyr Glutton wasn´t very sanitary when he stole the precious source of protein from the hungry peasants at Christmas.
Skyr Glutton wasn´t very sanitary when he stole the precious source of protein from the hungry peasants at Christmas.

Christmas Tip No. 4: Avoid the Fermented Skate but Feast on Smoked Lamb and Ptarmigan

On the 23rd of Decembers Icelanders celebrate the mass of the Catholic St. Thorlakur although Icelanders are by a vast majority not Catholic at all. On this day it is customary to eat fermented skate with potatoes and lard (!).

Skate. We love to hate it.
Skate. We love to hate it.

This “delicacy”, well, reeks of ammonia and if you are going to try this “food” at all we recommend copious amount of Brennivin to take the edge of things.

Icelandic Church at Christmas
Icelandic Church at Christmas

Christmas starts at six in the afternoon on the 24th of December. Many attend church, have dinner and then open the Christmas presents. Popular Icelandic Christmas dinners include ptarmigan (which originally was the food of those poor households who couldn´t get their hands on a sheep), smoked lamb which is the traditional thing or salted pork which is an Danish import. With this Icelanders drink an non-alcaholic mix of ale and orange soda called “Malt & Appelsín. A box of fine chocoloate from Noi Sirius is for many Icelanders a key ingredient for Christmas.

Icelandic Christmas Tip No. 5: Give Lurid Tales for Christmas

Books are a large part of Christmas gifts given in Iceland. For the past years thrillers by such authors as Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indridason have been the best sellers.

Icelandic Christmas Tip No. 6: Go downtown and soak up the Christmas spirit

Go downtown on the last days before Christmas and soak up the Christmas spirit. The old center of Reykjavik is full of people doing last minute Christmas shopping and hanging out. If the weather is good is a regular Christmas wonderland there. Get roasted almonds Copenhagen style on the corner of Bankastraeti and Skólavörðustígur.

These guys make great almonds.
These guys make great almonds.

Go ice skating on the small ice skating rink at Ingólfstorg square.

The ice rink at Ingólfstorg.
The ice rink at Ingólfstorg.

Icelandic Christmas Tip No. 7: Party hard and Blow Up Stuff on New Years Eve!

Remember at the beginning when we mention that Icelandic Christmas goes on for 13 days? That means that it is still Christmas when New Years Eve rolls around. Icelanders go a bit crazy on New Years with partying, bonfires and fireworks. It is well worth checking out Iceland at that time. On the thirteenth day of Christmas the last of the Yule lads leaves us, elves and trolls visit the human world and Christmas is burned away with even fireworks and bonfires.

Fireworks in front of the Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral in Reykjavik, Iceland
Fireworks in front of the Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral in Reykjavik, Iceland

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How to Celebrate Icelandic Christmas

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