Christmas Traditions in Iceland

The most joyous period of the year

Christmas Ice Skating
Christmas Ice Skating
14 DEC 2016
by

Each and every one of us is used to their own set of Christmas traditions. Some are common within our countries and some are traditions we have made for ourselves. What they all have in common is that Christmas doesn’t become real before all of them are fulfilled.

For those of us in a relationship it can be a conundrum to negotiate these Christmas traditions, especially the Christmas dinner. In Iceland the customs can vary quite a bit; in some households a smoked ham is served, in some a meticulously prepared leg of lamb, in others small birds such as puffin or ptarmigan or bigger ones such as turkey. Because of all the options, our significant other is not guaranteed to want the same dinner as us and in those cases there’s the possibility of solving the issue with a swap every other year or serving two meals each year. Fortunately with a little luck and Christmas spirit these things generally get solved successfully without any bloodshed.

Decorating is one of the most joyous Christmas activities. In Iceland the stores start flashing their Christmas decorations as soon as late October, while the general public doesn’t put up their lights until November or even December. Ikea is one of the early bloomers and in recent years they’ve added a giant decorated Christmas goat made of hay to their display. Unfortunately the goat rarely lives to see Christmas Day since it is usually set on fire by others or by malfunctioning Christmas lights. The people of Iceland, although shaken up over the misfortunes of the giant goat, have decided to not let it ruin their Christmas excitement. There’s now talk of making this a Christmas tradition by annually assembling around the astounding Ikea goat for a scheduled Christmas bonfire.

Most houses in Iceland have lights in their windows in the month of December and in recent years the houses have started to become increasingly more decorated giving our neighbors across the Atlantic Ocean a run for their Christmas light money. It is customary to only leave the lights on until the 6th of January or the Thirteenth as we locals call it since it’s the thirteenth and last day of Christmas. We traditionally celebrate it with fireworks and bonfires, and although we don’t generally set any giant goats on fire during that day, there’s still a large celebration and a lot of fun. Back in the old days people would take down their Christmas decorations on that exact day, but nowadays they are often left on to light the dark winter nights a while longer.

Torching things isn’t the only thing us Icelanders like to do for fun around Christmas; we also have the ancient tradition of the Icelandic Santas. They do not wear red clothing or ride reindeer driven sleighs, but are thirteen in total and were mostly invented to scare children into obeying their parents. The Santas have horrible parents, Grýla and Leppalúði, that as the story says, eat naughty children for dinner. Today the stories are different and children leave a shoe in the window in hopes of getting gifts from these strange Santas. Good children get nice things such as small toys, books, mandarins or other goodies while naughty ones get an uncooked potato. Some parents, such as my own, make the mistake of starting the gift giving on the 1st of December but because the Santas are only 13 they shouldn’t start before the 11th. I, of course, never corrected my parents, but enjoyed being the envy of other children whose parents followed the custom correctly.

In Iceland we celebrate Christmas for three days but the biggest dinner is on Christmas Eve and that is also the day we open our presents. These three Christmas days are some of my favorite of the year and there is nothing better than waking up on Christmas Day morning and enjoying the gifts and leftovers from the night before. I love wearing my pajamas, cuddling under a blanket by the television, while watching a Christmas movie. If I’m lucky I’ll even have some lovely Christmas snow falling outside my window while I’m cozying inside.

Merry Christmas Everybody and I hope your Holidays will be wonderful!