Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus…All 13 of them! Christmas in Iceland is unlike any other. Learn more about the traditions and customs that shape the holidays here in the North.
So you‘ve decided to go away for Christmas this year, to get away from all the stress and experience a different Christmas culture than what you‘re used to. Welcome to Iceland! The perfect destination for the holidays, Iceland is a country with unique and rich Christmas traditions.
The winter months can be long and dark so Icelanders relish the opportunity to bring a little light into the darkness. Almost everyone puts up their Christmas lights on the first day of the Advent. Whether they decorate the windows or the trees and bushes in front of the house, each household will do their bit for the festival of lights and the whole country literally twinkles in December. Most homes will also have an Advent wreath where they’ll light one candle for each of the four Sundays of the Advent. Some families will have a little ceremony around the lighting of each candle, sing Christmas songs and eat cookies or clementines and drink Malt & Appelsín.
Christmas in Iceland is really a combination of two traditions, the Christian one celebrating the birth of Christ, and the ancient celebration of the Winter Solstice. Christmas is a family time in Iceland and for three days everyone stays mostly indoors, eating, reading, watching television and enjoying each other’s company. Even patients in hospitals who are well enough, go home over Christmas. The celebrations traditionally start at 6 pm on December 24th with the ringing of the church bells, broadcast on the national radio.
With all the natives indoors, it stands to reason that city life is a little slower than normal over the holidays. Almost everywhere is closed from around noon on Christmas Eve to the morning of December 27th But don’t worry, if you’re not part of an Icelandic family there is still plenty to do over the holidays and you certainly won’t go hungry.
A Christmas moment in the Wilderness Center
The weeks leading up to Christmas Eve are filled with fun activities for the whole family. If you’re in Reykjavik head to Þjóðminjasafnið – The National Museum of Iceland where you can learn about old Icelandic Christmas customs and have the opportunity to meet an authentic Icelandic Santa Claus. Iceland has 13 Santa Clauses, or Yule Lads as they are known here, who live up in the mountains with their parents, the troll Leppalúði and the famous and ruthless ogre Grýla. The lads come to town one by one in the days before Christmas and were once known to cause trouble wherever they went, slamming doors, peeping through windows and even eating candles. But nowadays they’ve seen the error of their ways and leave little treats instead for good children who have put their shoe in the window.
The Yule Cat or Christmas Cat is the viscious household pet of Grýla, Leppalúði, and the Lads and one of the darker aspects of Christmas folklore in Iceland. As the story goes, the cat said to lurk about in the cold, snowy countryside during Christmas time and eat people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. But the story of the Christmas Cat served a practical purpose. It was used as an incentive from farmers to their laborers to finish processing their wool before Christmas. The poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum popularized the Christmas Cat in his poem Jólakötturinn.
How handsome are these two Yule Lads!
Christmas markets are held all over the country where you can buy authentic Icelandic craft and design, along with Christmas decorations and even Christmas trees. Stroll through with a cup of hot cocoa in your hand and enjoy the wholesome feel of Icelandic Christmas. Shopping is always a big part of the Christmas preparations and Iceland is no different in that aspect. What makes the Icelandic Christmas shopping spree unique is the fact that books are the bestselling gifts. Icelanders love to curl up on Christmas Eve after the festivities with a new book. More books are published around the holidays than any other time of year and the period is referred to as the “Christmas Book Flood”.
Shops are open longer in the days leading up to Christmas and, since Icelanders aren’t exactly known for their organisational skills, are always packed. December 23rd, or Þorláksmessa (Thorlak’s Mass, named after Þorlákur Þórhallsson, an Icelandic priest canonised by Althing in 1198) is the biggest shopping day by far and it’s traditional to go downtown to do some last minute shopping and meet family and friends. Choirs sing Christmas carols and hot chocolate is handed out in a lot of the shops. In Reykjavik, Akureyri and Ísafjörður the Peace Walk makes its way down the main street to raise awareness of the fight for world peace. Christmas shopping is very important, not just for the economy but mostly because we all want to avoid the Christmas Cat. Thank God the shops are open late!
If you’re the organised type and finished all your Christmas shopping in June, you might want to enjoy one of the many Christmas buffets available. Most restaurants will have a traditional buffet filled with Icelandic Christmas food, like hangikjöt, laufabrauð and pickled red cabbage. All washed down with a cold glass of Malt & Appelsín of course. The traditional mix of malt extraxt and orange soda is synonymous with Christmas in Iceland. And although alcohol isn’t a big part of the actual Christmas celebrations in Iceland, a Christmas buffet is the perfect place for a little tipple before heading back out into the twinkling darkness. Gleðileg jól!