The Icelandic Christmas period is an intriguing mixture of religious practice and traditional folklore. As many countries do, Iceland celebrates Christmas (Jól in Icelandic) mostly with good food and presents to loved ones, but unlike most countries that only have a single Father Christmas/Santa Claus character, Icelandic children are fortunate enough to be visited by 13 Yule Lads.
Here are a few other Icelandic Christmas traditions you might be interested to know.
Icelanders take their Christmas decorating very seriously. Pretty much everyone decorates and arguably the most popular Christmas decoration in Iceland (after a Christmas tree) is the Advent light, which is a staple in most Icelandic homes. There are two main types: the Advent wreath, which has four candles, one lit on each Sunday of Advent; and the triangle-shaped, seven-candle electric candelabra, which are placed on windowsills to shine out into the winter darkness.
Children leave one of their shoes on a windowsill
One of the best Icelandic Christmas traditions, particularly for kids, is the shoe-in-the window tradition.
On the night preceding December 12th Icelandic children will put their shoe in the window so that the first of the 13 Yule lads (the Icelandic Santa Clauses) can leave a little present in their shoe. The shoe stays on the windowsill until Christmas Eve and the children hope that the Yule lads, who one by one come into town from their mountain home the 13 nights leading up to Christmas, will leave a little something for them in the shoe. This is typically some candy or a small toy.
However, if the kids were particularly naughty that day they run the risk of finding a rotten potato in their shoe the next morning.
Decorating grave markers with lights
If you’ve been to Iceland over the Christmas period you might have seen cemeteries and gravestones decorated with lights. This is because remembering loved ones is a big part of the Yuletide season for Icelanders.
The weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, families will come together at the graves of their loved ones and place on them a candle or decorate them with electric Christmas lights, to pay respect and to show that they are remembered and missed.
Malt & Appelsín
Iceland’s traditional Christmas drink is a non-alcoholic mixture of the locally produced Maltöl and Appelsín (orange soda). Each family member tends to have his or her own opinion on what constitutes the perfect mixture of the two: 50/50 or 60/40, Appelsín first or Malt first? Debates can go on for hours, days or even years. No Icelandic Christmas would be complete without it.
These days it’s available pre-mixed from the Egil’s beverage company, in case you want to try it for yourself.
Decorating and cooking laufabrauð
Laufabrauð (‘Leaf bread’ in English) is one of the more unique Icelandic Christmas tradition. While decorated bread is also a tradition in quite a few countries, round, leaf-thin, deep-fried cakes with patterns created by making cuts through the dough are not known anywhere else than in Iceland. The tradition dates back to 1736 in North Iceland, but these days its popularity has spread across the country.
Typically, families gather a few weeks before Christmas to decorate their own batch of leaf breads, which is then fried and served with hangikjöt (smoked lamb).
The Christmas book flood
Iceland sells more books per capita than any other nation in the world, the vast majority of which are sold in the lead-up to Christmas during a period known as ‘the Yule book flood’ (Jólabókaflóðið in Icelandic). The name came about as traditionally everyone must receive at least one book for Christmas to take to bed on Christmas Eve and reflect on the night and relax.
The tradition began during World War II when harsh restrictions on imports left the Icelandic people with few gift options come Christmastime. Because the restrictions on imported paper were a lot more lenient, books became the obvious gift of choice — a tradition that hasn’t flagged in the 70+ years since.
Þorláksmessa – December 23rd
Þorláksmessa (Mass of St. Thorlakur) is a holiday celebrated on December 23rd to honor the patron saint of Iceland, ‘heilagur Þorlákur Þórhallsson’, or ‘St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson’.
One particularly smelly tradition is to chow down on some fermented skate, known as kæst skata in Icelandic. While enthusiasts for the dish rejoice, others are filled with feelings of dread as there is absolutely no escaping the ammonia fumes which fill the streets due to the dish being served in many restaurants and homes on Þorláksmessa.
Christmas Eve – December 24th
One major difference between Christmas in Iceland and the Anglosphere is that Icelanders exchange and open up their presents on Christmas Eve.
Families usually get together at 6PM to enjoy good food before sitting down to exchange presents. Larger families might be at it for a few hours as traditionally people take turns, with only one person opening up a present at a time.
The Christmas meal itself can vary from one family to another but for centuries, smoked lamb (hangikjöt) was the traditional gourmet Christmas meal. These days, popular fare at Christmas includes rjúpa (rock ptarmigan), or hamborgarhryggur, which is a glazed rack of ham, traditionally a Danish meal.
During the following two days (Christmas Day and Boxing Day) everyone goes to Christmas parties and meets with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends.