It’s that time again! The ever so cozy month of December. This time of the year is very special here in Iceland. Christmas lights and decorations light up our streets and home owners work hard on making their home bright and festive – to brighten up the winter darkness. Mid-month sees the arrival of the first Yule Lad, followed by one of his 12 brothers every day until Christmas. Children put their shoes in their window hoping that the Yule Lads will bring them a treat. As the New Year arrives, locals blow up tons of fireworks to say goodbye to the passing year.
Read on if you’re interested in learning more about what makes December in Iceland so unique and why this is truly my favorite month of the year…
Weather in December
December weather can be very unpredictable and is one of the coldest months in Iceland. The average high temperature is around 2 degrees Celsius (36 F) and the average low is about -1 degrees Celsius (30 F). That being said, people expect the weather to be much colder than it actually is. We don’t blame you since our name is ICEland, but the fact is visitors often experience much colder temperatures at home. Another surprise may be that there is no guarantee that there will be snow in Reykjavik, though the chances are higher in other parts of the country. In Iceland we say that we have a “white Christmas” if we have snow over the holidays and we have “red Christmas” if we have no snow. We, of course, always wish for as much snow as possible, it just makes everything so much more cozy! But just in case, be prepared for snow, rain, wind and sun in December – and pretty much every type of weather in any given day!.
Daylight in December
The days in December are very short—that is something you will notice right away. There’s an average of five hours of full daylight with slightly longer periods of dawn and dusk on each end. For this reason, Icelanders put up their Christmas lights early during the month to brighten up these dark days. On the 21st of December, commonly known as the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year occurs with only four hours of full daylight. It is important for you to keep this in mind when making your travel plans in Iceland during the month of December.
Northern Lights in December
Shorter and darker days isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it does have some perks. One upside is there is a greater opportunity to see the northern lights. The darker it gets the brighter the northern lights are. Do you want to learn more about the northern lights in Iceland and how to find them? Check out our blog here.
What pack for December
When packing for your Iceland trip during December the key is- pack warm layers. Make sure you are prepared for any weather Iceland throws at you. This time of year, we also highly recommend that you pack crampons which will come in handy when walking on icy roads in the city or when you are on a guided tour hunting for hidden ice caves in the Icelandic highlands.
Packing list for December in Iceland
- Warm winter jacket
- Warm winter pants
- Your camera is a must
- Hat, scarf and gloves
- Warm sweater (If you need one you can always buy the traditional Icelandic wool sweaters)
- Good waterproof footwear that is also good for hiking
- Bathing suit (Yes we still bathe outside in December)
- Warm socks
- Extra pair of shoes to put by the window for the Icelandic Yule Lads
What to do in December
Visit a Cozy Café in Reykjavik
Reykjavik offers so many great options when it comes to cafés. Meeting up with friends for a cup of coffee downtown is the perfect way to enjoy a chilly December afternoon. We don’t have any large international chains, such as Starbucks, but we do have small charming cafés owned by locals. To help you choose which café you should visit read our blog about top cozy cafés in Reykjavik here.
Go to a Christmas market
There is certainly no shortage of Christmas markets in Iceland during the month of December and it is the perfect way to get into the Christmas spirit. Heidmork Nature Reserve hosts a truly unique Christmas market each year. It’s a great way to experience local culture. Located in a wooded preserve just a short drive from Reykjavik, the market offers live music, local food traditions, locally made handicrafts, a café … and there’s the possibility to meet the Icelandic Yule lads that sometimes show up to dance around the Christmas tree.
Go Shopping in Reykjavik.
Is there a better gift to bring home to your loved ones than something nice from Iceland? We don’t think so. Lucky for you, our charming capital is home to many designers and plenty of shops where you can get unique and memorable gifts that will warm the hearts (and bodies, there‘s a lot of wool here) of your friends and family. The shops are open all year an they even have longer opening hours during December. Read our blog about tips and tricks to shopping in Reykjavik here.
Go to a concert
We Icelanders are very proud of our many talented musicians and during the month of December many of them have special Christmas concerts that are wildly popular with the locals. During the Christmas month it’s easy to find these concerts all over town, from big productions to small local pub performances. Icelanders love to sing and almost every other person sings in a choir, so you will also find a fair amount of choir concerts all over the country too.
Eating is a big part of any Christmas celebration, but a smelly fish? Yes, eating a fermented skate is a part of our holiday tradition – though you could say the nation is divided into two – those who eat it and those who most definitely do not! One could say that the taste of this Icelandic delicacy is an acquired taste. To get the ideal flavor and aroma, the skate is left to rot and ferment, and final product’s taste is hard to describe but it smells like ammonia and it permeates everything including your hair and clothes. So if you happen to come across an unusual number of smelly Icelanders on the 23rd of December – just know it’s the smell of Christmas in Iceland! We encourage you to channel your inner Viking and have a taste of skate with potatoes, rye bread and a lot of Icelandic butter – bon appetit!
Go to Christmas buffet
In December, many restaurants offer a special Christmas buffet instead of their usual menu. It is a tradition to go to at least one of those buffets and stuff yourself with traditional Christmas food until you almost need to be carried home! We highly recommend the Christmas buffets at Geiri Smart, Satt, Vox and Slippbarinn – more here.
The best way to stay warm during December would be to simply jump into one of our natural hot springs or swimming pools that can be found all over the country. The feeling of sliding in the warm water after being out all day in the cold weather is simply the best feeling in the world! Read our blog about the best pools in Iceland.
Just a few years ago an ice-skating rink was opened on Ingolfstorg square in downtown Reykjavik. This ice-skating rink is only open in December and has quickly become a Christmas must. It is next to the Christmas market and lit with Christmas lights, playing Christmas classics on the loud speakers.
Travel to North Iceland
The north of Iceland is most Icelanders favorite winter destination and for good reason. Rich in history, culture, amazing landscapes as well as its charming small towns, it’s no wonder it was named a top European destination by Lonley Planet. Back in the day it was very difficult to reach during the cold winter months but with new roads and an access tunnel that have been opened the area is accessible year-round.
Visit the Christmas garden
The Christmas garden is located near Akureyri in North Iceland. The garden is actually open all year. It is a must visit while in the area but especially during December. Stepping into the Christmas house at the garden is like stepping into a fairytale world. The house has two floors where you can find everything related to Christmas. From Christmas decorations, Christmas candy, to the cave where the ever evil Gryla the mother of the Icelandic Yule Lads lives.
Driving around Iceland in December
When driving around in Iceland in December make sure to take into account the shorter daylight hours. This is important so you will be able to enjoy Iceland’s many attractions in daylight.We also recommend that you you check the weather forecast on a daily basis either by checking this website or its simple enough to obtain information from you accommodation’s front desk staff. If driving in Iceland, it’s also important to stay updated on road conditions by checking safetravel.is. Be prepared for all types of weather as the weather conditions can change in the blink of an eye. Winter roads can be slippery and snowy especially in the country side so make sure you rent a car that is prepared to handle a variety of road conditions. When driving pay special attention to speed according to road conditions, look ahead and maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you.
You can of course always contact us if you have any questions, after all we are the experts.
To learn more about the Do’s and Don’t’s of driving in Iceland check out our blog here.
Learn how to choose the perfect car for your road trip in Iceland here.
Events and festivals in December
Lighting of the Christmas tree
Every year, hundreds of people gather for the annual Oslo Christmas tree lighting which takes place in Austurvollur Square in downtown Reykjavik. The event is associated with the beginning of the advent in Iceland and is also a reminder of the friendship and kinship between Iceland and Norway.
Go downtown Reykjavik at Thorlaksmessa
One the 23th of December Icelanders celebrate Thorlaksmessa or Saint Thorlak’s day. Thorlakur was an Icelandic bishop and an archivist of Icelandic christian lore who was canonized in 1984. This day has become an important part of Icelandic Christmas traditions, but Icelandic families gather together on this day eat skate and then go out to visit friends. This is also the last day of Christmas preparation in Iceland so that means that people gather in downtown Reykjavik and do the last-minute Christmas shopping while meeting up with friends, drinking beer, singing and enjoying this special night before Christmas.
Arrival of the Yule Lads
Iceland has 13 Santa Clauses, or Yule Lads as they are known here, who live up in the mountains with their parents, the troll Leppaludi and the famous and ruthless ogre Gryla. 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. If you’re in Reykjavik head to Thjodminjasafnid – 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.
New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik
There is no better way than to start your new year than with a BANG! Icelandic New Year’s Eve is considered one of the world’s most breathtaking celebrations. The fireworks display on New Year’s Eve in Iceland must be seen to be believed. Nowhere in the world are more fireworks used on this holiday. On this evening, the ban on fireworks is lifted and citizens use the opportunity to the fullest, lighting up the night sky with a massive, brilliant show of blazing colors as far as the eye can see. Pretty much everywhere in Iceland locals follow the same New Year’s routine.
First, we meet up with family or friends to have dinner. After dinner, locals gather at their nearest bonfire to sing, dance and watch firework shows. Following the bonfire everyone returns home to watch Iceland’s New Year’s sketch comedy show “Aramotaskaupid,” which is a humorous take on events from the previous year. Then finally at midnight, the party returns outdoors to ring in the new year with thousands of fireworks. Fun fact: Icelanders like to speculate how much their friends and neighbors spent on their households’ fireworks display–the numbers may shock you!
Ideal tours in December