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How to Celebrate Christmas like an Icelander

How to Celebrate Christmas like an Icelander

christmas cat reykjavik

Christmas in Iceland is quite different from Christmas in other countries, for instance, from my home country in Germany. In this blog post, we will tell you about Iceland’s Christmas traditions and fascinating facts and customs that might feel weird to foreigners. To get the full package of Christmas in Iceland, listen to our podcast episode HERE. Check more episodes here.

When does Christmas in Iceland start?

Most people start to put their Christmas decorations up on the first of advent. But since the days starting to get dark in Iceland much earlier, many Icelanders start to install outdoor lights at the beginning of November.

iceland christmas
The Santa Letter Box on Laugavegur. Photo by us

We´ve seen Christmas decorations in the stores in October. There is a Christmas store on Laugavegur, the main shopping street in downtown Reykjavík. It is safe to say that Christmas plays a big part in all Icelander’s lives.

The Christmas Cat Statue

The Christmas cat (Jólakötturinn) is about five meters high and six meters wide and was first installed inLækjartorg in the center of Reykjavík in 2018. The city of Reykjavík paid a total of 4.4 million ISK (today’s conversion about 33.000 USD) in the first year, which did not sit well with everyone.

Some people criticized the city’s priorities and suggested to spend that money on raising wages for workers to buy their kids new clothes. Because legend has it, the Christmas cat eats children who did not receive new clothes before Christmas Eve.

Christmas iceland cat
The Christmas Cat at Lækjatorg

We think everyone enjoys the cat, it is a magnet both for locals and tourists. A statement from the city says:

“The purpose is, of course, to bring the city into festive costume and encourage people to come to the city center to enjoy everything that is offered there (…) Therefore, the City of Reykjavík puts a lot of effort into decorating the city center for Christmas so that people can come, meet other people and experience the festive spirit of Christmas. ”

The Christmas Tree from the Icelandic Forest (yes, we have trees)

Believe it or not – there is a forest in Iceland – close to Reykjavík called Heiðmörk. It has become a strong tradition in many families to come to the Reykjavík Forestry Association’s Christmas forest on Advent and cut their own Christmas tree.

Christmas iceland forest
A forest in Iceland – just kidding

Icelandic Christmas trees are environmentally friendly and sustainable. They are grown without toxins and are not transported between countries. Instead of each tree that is cut down, Skógræktarfélag Reykjavíkur plants 50 plants (According to their website).

Ice Skating at Ingolfstorg Square

Usually, at the end of November, Reykjavík City collaborates with an Icelandic phone company to open an ice-skating rink at Ingólfstorg Square. There you can skate for free, or rent skates and helmets for a small fee.

This is mostly enjoyed by the younger generation. However, we are not sure they going to have the Ice Skating square this year. Since Christmas is kind of canceled (just joking).

13 Gifts from the Yule Lads

On the 12th of December, when the first Yule Lad comes to town, every child in Iceland puts their best shoe on their bedroom window sill. The Child will receive a small gift from every Yule Lad the next morning in their shoe.

But beware this is only the case if you have been a good child. If you haven’t been good, you will only find a sad, lonely potato in your shoe.

There will be a separate podcast episode and blog post for all the Yule Lads!

Þorláksmessa on the 23. of December

December 23 is Þorláksmessa, the feast of St. Thorlákur (or Thorlac) one of the most important days in Iceland. It marks the last day of preparations for Christmas in Iceland. Many families decorate the Christmas tree on Þorláksmessa.

It is also the day when Icelanders hurry to shop their last Christmas gifts and all shops downtown are open until 11 PM. For me, working in retail in a souvenir shop in Reykjavík for several years, this day was absolutely nuts. On this day, downtown Reykjavík is going absolutely crazy and full of crowds. It will surely be different this year.

reykjavik christmas
Downtown Reykjavík late November 2020

Traditionally Icelanders ate fish on this day But then in West Iceland, especially the Westfjords, people ate fermented skate on the feast of St. Þorlákur. Hence, the tradition spread throughout Iceland in the 20th century.

Fermented skate or which is similar to a stingray is a traditional Icelandic food. But most foreigners might find it least appetizing. It has a rich smell of ammonia and a kind of jelly flesh which can make it hard to swallow.

Christmas Eve (Aðfangadagur jóla) on the 24. of December – time for presents

One very lovely tradition happens at 6 pm on the 24. of December. The churchbells will start to ring and you gather together with your loved ones to give each other a hug and cheers to the official start of Christmas Eve. It is also the time when most families start dinner.

See Also

christmas dinner iceland
Our Christmas Dinner 2019

Typical Icelandic food for Christmas is lamb but also beef, glazed ham as well as turkey. On the side, Icelanders serve boiled and sugar-coated potatoes, warm green peas, pickled red cabbage from the can. Yes from the can, it’s pretty good.

Besides new clothes, books are a popular present. Iceland sells more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and the vast majority are sold in the lead-up to Christmas. Then after the present exchange, you might find members of the family reading their new book in the bed with some hot chocolate.

Other traditions to round off Christmas Eve is to play cards with the family or just sit in front of the TV and watch an Icelandic Christmas movie.

Christmas Day in Iceland on the 25th of December (Jóladagur)

The 25th is a family day and most stores and public places are closed. However, in recent years it became more common for stores to be open. Icelanders usually go outside after Christmas Lunch and some of them will visit public places like museums with their kids. We speak from experience as we both worked on the 25th in the past.

Traditional food on this day is  Hangikjöt (smoked lamb), boiled potatoes, and a sauce called Uppstúf, based on boiled potatoes, butter, flour, sugar, and milk. Some families eat reindeer, from Iceland. Yes, we have reindeer, although they are not domestic to Iceland. Only a small number of people receive a hunting license and will then offer their family reindeer on the 25th.

January 6th: Þrettándinn – The Thirteenth day from Christmas Eve in Iceland

January 6th is the last day of the Christmas holidays when the last Yule Lads leaves and goes back to the mountains. According to a legend, weird things happen on this day. Elves make themselves visible to humans, animals start to talk.

christmas mood
Winter Wonderland in Iceland. Photo by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash

Icelanders need to be sure that their houses are clean, the Christmas decorations are taken down, and the tree is no longer in the living room. There are also bonfires on this night as well to say farewell to this holiday season.

Some people will be dressed in costumes on a parade on the way to the bonfires. Not all people will take their Christmas tree down already. According to Alli, many people will throw the tree from the balcony, as this is easier than drag it through multiple-story apartment buildings.

Get into Christmas Mood with us and listen to the new episode. If you like our show, we would be happy if you give us a review on Apple Podcast, Link here. Thank you for listening and Merry Christmas!

Steffi & Aðalbjörn
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