The Christmas season in Iceland is a time of year that is a pivotal event for the average Icelander. Interestingly enough, it is a time of year that goes well beyond just December 25th.
Simply put, while some cultures celebrate just Christmas Day, people in Iceland will celebrate it for several weeks!
Here are just a few of the customs and traditions that make an Iceland Christmas so unique:
St. Thorlakur’s Day
St. Thorlakur’s Day is an important day of the Christmas season for any Icelander. It is during this time that they reflect on an important individual within Icelandic history: St. Thorlakur (1133-1193).
He was a man who accomplished many things for the Icelandic people.
For one thing, he is well-known for founding a monastery called Canons Regular after he returned to Iceland in 1165.
He also was known for living a life of devotion to theology and refusing to marry. Icelanders recognize the importance of St. Thorlakur in many different ways:
Eating skate fish
The first thing many Icelanders do to commemorate St. Thorlakur is to dine on some skate fish.
Unfortunately, this type of fish is an acquired taste (as it can get very smelly!) so many Icelanders opt to go to a public restaurant to eat this traditional meal.
Another thing that Icelanders do on St. Thorlakur’s Day (December 23rd) is to catch up on their last-minute Christmas shopping.
Most of the stores will remain open as late as midnight on St. Thorlakur’s Day.
Jo’l, which is another name for “Yule” in Iceland, is another name for the period when all of the main Christmas traditions will officially start.
On Jo’l, many Icelanders will sit down to an impressive and elaborate home-cooked dinner with all of the members of their family.
Once dinner is finished, an Icelandic family will open each of their presents.
Some Icelandic individuals will go to a midnight Mass service after their gift exchange. Others will stay at home and try out their gifts or enjoy some extra sweets.
Jo’l Day, also known as Christmas Day, is usually a day reserved for Icelanders to simply relax with their families, enjoy some good food, play some games, watch films, or even go to some family reunions.
Icelanders are also very big on Boxing Day, as this is a good day for the nightlife of Reykjavik to go out on the town.
Christmas Food in Iceland
Iceland has a whole host of traditional Christmas food that young and old alike enjoy. It is truly one of the things that makes the holidays in Iceland so special. Here are some examples:
The full name of these cookies would be “Sara Bernhardt Cookies” and they are actually originally a Danish creation, named after famous Danish actress Sarah Bernhardt.
They were first devised by a pastry chef in 1911 to celebrate the actress’s arrival in Denmark to start writing her memoirs.
Of course, whatever the history of these unique cookies might be, the most important thing to remember about them is that they are very popular and very tasty. You should be sure to serve them slightly frozen as well.
This type of bread, which is also called “Lanfabrauno”, is a traditional Icelandic holiday bread.
It consists of a very thin crust that usually has a very intricate design carved upon it, making it resemble a doily, except it’s an edible one!
New Year’s Eve
Icelanders have a great deal of reverence for this time of year, and they consider it to be one of the most important times of the year for their culture.
They also consider it to be a magical season. Here are some of the many New Year’s traditions:
According to one of the folktales, from New Year’s Eve to January 6th cows and other animals can talk.
Of course, there are many accounts regarding this strange phenomenon, and discussing them would take an entire article itself.
One example would be a case where you definitely wouldn’t want to hear these ordinarily innocuous farm animals talking.
Supposedly, there was an individual many centuries ago who heard the cows suddenly start jabbering in a foreign tongue, but it ultimately drove him mad.
It is said that this time of year sees seals becoming human. They also will engage in a number of human relations, if you know what I mean.
Fairies leaving their homes
Another thing that is supposed to happen during the New Year’s time is that fairies will leave their otherworldly existence and start seeking a temporary shelter on Earth.
It is during this time that many Icelanders will walk around praying for these “spirits” to find peace and comfort.
New Year’s Eve is a time for the Iceland people to wind down.
Finally, on a lighter note, it is a time for everyone in Iceland to “wind-down”.
January 1st through the 6th is the time for all Icelanders to burn out their last candles, start putting away their decorations, and meet and greet their family members for the last time, playing their last board games and card games.
All in all, Iceland has some interesting Christmas traditions that they all enjoy!
Happy/Merry Christmas/Jól in Icelandic is ‘Gleðileg jól’. It is interesting to know how people wish Happy or Merry Christmas in other languages.
Learn More With the Help of Video
Main Points About Christmas in Iceland
- Christmas in Iceland is a period for family warmth, lights, and celebration.
- The 23rd of December is known as the Saint Thorlak day (He is the patron saint of Iceland). On this day, it is customary to eat simple meals.
- The day before Christmas eve is the day for big shopping and the day the Christmas tree is decorated.
- Iceland has 13 Santa Clauses or Yule lads. They are characters believed to be some sort of Santa’s elves that play mean tricks.
- On Christmas Day, the families and loved ones come together to share a Christmas meal of assorted dishes including roast lamb and leaf bread.
In Iceland, Christmas is called ”Jól” or ”Yule,” which was the ancient word for a winter festival held during the winter solstice.
Christmas celebration starts already on the 23rd, the death day of Iceland’s main Saint, St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson.
Traditionally you will have a meal of skate on this day. Celebrations on Christmas Eve starts a 6 pm, probably a heritage from when the day used to start at 6 pm and not at midnight.
Word Cloud for Christmas in Iceland
The following is a collection of the most used terms in this article on Christmas in Iceland. This should help in recalling related terms as used in this article at a later stage for you.
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Chara Yadav holds MBA in Finance. Her goal is to simplify finance-related topics. She has worked in finance for about 25 years. She has held multiple finance and banking classes for business schools and communities. Read more at her bio page.