Christmas in Iceland Reykjavik. Traditions Icelanders have several of their own unique holidays, besides celebrating some international holidays in special ways. Many festivities are related to ancient Norse traditions, while others frequently connect to the Christian calendar. The traditional winter holidays are especially meaningful for Icelanders. The Christmas period is an intriguing mixture of religious practices and traditional folklore. Beginning on 23 December and ending on 6 January, Epiphany.
In between, there is a whole lot of food to eat, people to meet and fireworks to launch.
You might say the Icelanders have not one Santa figure but a whole series of thirteen. The jólasveinar or Yule lads. Descended from trolls. They were apparently often mentioned to scare children, but in recent times have been personified as a lot friendlier.
e by one, they come to town in the days before Christmas; the first one arrives during the night preceding December 12 and the last one during the night preceding December 24. Formerly, they tried to pilfer their favourite things or play tricks on people (hence their names below). But now their main role is to give children small gifts. Just about every child in Christmas in Iceland Reykjavik puts a shoe on the window sill in the evening. So the lad coming that night can leave a present in it. Of course, if the child has been naughty, the lad might just leave an untasty raw potato instead!
While the number of Yule lads has varied in different times and regions, it is now consistently 13. The number 13 and their current names were printed in Jón Árnason’s folklore collection of 1862, establishing the Icelandic names as follows, even if various translations are possible:
1. Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod)
2. Giljagaur (Gully Gawk)
3. Stúfur (Stubby)
4. Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker)
5. Pottasleikir (Pot-Licker)
6. Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker)
7. Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer)
8. Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler)
9. Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper)
As you can tell from the list, these lads are mischievous, and each one has retained some of his unique characteristics to this day.
Grýla, Leppalúði and the Christmas Cat
The Yule lads’ vices may have something to do with unfortunate genetics and upbringing, since according to Icelandic folklore they were the sons of a threeheaded ogress called Grýla – whose favourite dish was a stew that she cooked out of naughty children – and her third husband, an aged, ugly ogre called Leppalúði. Nonetheless, their cat was perhaps even more vicious, Jólakötturinn (the Christmas Cat), who was rumoured to eat those children who had no new clothes to wear on Christmas Day.
Þorláksmessa (Saint Þorlákur’s Mass) is on December 23 and is named after Þorlákur Þórhallsson, a 12th-century bishop over the more southerly parts of Iceland. The ideal dish on Þorláksmessa Day is putrefied skate. As December 23 was traditionally the last day of the pre-Christmas fast, no one was supposed to eat meat, but was allowed to eat skate and other fish. Eating putrefied skate on December 23 is still a popular tradition in Christmas in Iceland Reykjavik, despite the sharp smell of ammonia. In addition, Þorláksmessa is usually the biggest day of the year in Icelandic retail stores, as people flock out to do their last minute Christmas shopping, which involves a lot of good cheer as everyone meets others and passes on warm Yuletide wishes.
Christmas and Easter Day are Iceland’s longest holidays, with all of the following day also being a holiday for most persons (the so-called Second Days of Christmas and Easter). At Easter, both the Thursday and Friday before Easter Sunday are also holidays, which makes five days in all for people who are off work on Saturdays. At Christmas, most businesses remain closed from noon on Christmas Eve till after December 26. For many decades, the main family celebration in most homes has begun at six o’clock on Christmas Eve. The family dine together that evening, perhaps dance and sing around the Christmas tree, and exchange presents. In the following two days people often gather with the wider family and family friends.
The Icelandic Christmas may be seen as two celebrations: on the one hand celebrating the birth of Christ and on the other celebrating the beginning of longer daylight hours. The Icelandic word for Christmas, jól, refers neither to Christ nor the church, but is a much older Germanic word and also exists in English cognates such as Yuletide.