Anthropologist, social media guru, Icelandic nature and food enthusiast.
Christmas is a magical time spent with friends and family and often involves a lot of eating. Iceland isn't a very religious country, but we love the traditions and have a ton of them, and many of them are easy for you to join in on over this merry time! Let's do Christmas Iceland-style!
1. Board Games and Puzzles
Puzzle with Icelandic Santa Clauses - Yule Lads
Christmas is a time to be spent with friends and family, but in Iceland, you can’t really go out and have a picnic in December, so inside activities are the most popular ones. When the temperatures drop well below zero Celsius and the daylight is extremely limited, it’s best to coop up inside and play a board game or do a puzzle with the ones you love or, in other cases, distract relatives from asking you the questions you really don’t want to answer.
2. Italian songs with Icelandic lyrics
Icelanders have great singers and songwriters, so I'm not sure why we have this constant need to steal Italian songs and make them into Icelandic Christmas songs, but still, it's a fact.
Here are an example of Icelandic Christmas song:
Ef ég nenni originally Cosi’ celeste.
Ég hlakka svo til originally Dopo la tempesta.
Þú og ég originally Ci sara.
Þú og ég og jól originally Gente come noi.
Komdu um jólin originally Gente di mare.
Þú komst með jólin til mín originally Chi voglio sei tu.
Svona eru jólin originally Quanto ti amo.
Fyrir jól originally vous danser.
3. Lights, Christmas lights everywhere
Yule Cat decorated with Christmas lights in Reykjavik downtown, Iceland
When it comes to Christmas decorations, Icelanders think, “go big or go home.” This might have to do with the darkness and how much the light decorations help with it or that the neighbor next door is doing it, and you can’t do less than him. Whatever the reason, it still stands as a fantastic Icelandic Christmas fact and is amazing.
4. Hangikjöt, potatoes, green peas and béchamel white sauce
Traditional Christmas dish in Iceland. Photo by Eldhússögur
Hangikjöt e. Hanging meat is smoked lamb, usually boiled and served cold or hot in slices. On the side, you traditionally have potatoes in white béchamel sauce, green peas, and laufabrauð (see above). The name comes from the old tradition of smoking food by hanging it from the rafters of a smoking shed. This was done in order to preserve it for longer periods of time. It is simply delicious, and you must try it whenever you get a chance!
5. Aðventukrans e. Advent wreath
Aðventukrans is the tradition of lighting four candles placed in a ring or a wreath one by one on each Sunday before Christmas. Many people make their own wreaths which is a part of their Christmas crafts making that many take on during November/December. Wreath-making is a super cozy activity, and it's super easy to make!
6. Jólasmákökur e. Christmas cookies and a lot of them
Traditional Christmas cookies (Jólasmákökur) in Iceland
Ahh, the time of sugar and serious overeating. This is when everyone bakes like they are throwing a party for 100 people and want to have leftovers. The more types, the better!
Traditional Icelandic Christmas dish - Hamborgarhryggur
Hamborgarhryggur is a kind of Gammon Steak. It is made with pig meat, glazed with sugar, and often decorated with pineapple slices and cocktail cherries. It is best served with caramelized potatoes, Waldorf salad, and brown sauce. It’s salty, it’s fat and… it’s fantastic!
8. Jólajógúrt e. Christmas Yogurt
Christmas Yoghurt from the local Icelandic grocery shop
OH, THE JOY when you first see a Christmas Yoghurt at the local grocery shop. This Christmas I bought 10 and sent pictures to all of my friends. I thought I would grow out of this, but here I am, 25 years old, with nothing else in the fridge than Jóla jógúrt. IT’S JUST SO GOOD!
9. Laufabrauð e. Not sure if there is a word for it in English
Laufabrauð - traditional Icelandic Christmas bread
Laufabrauð is a traditional Icelandic bread eaten only over the Christmas season. It’s a round, thin, and flatbread cake that you buy at shops or bakeries, and then the family gathers to cut all sorts of patterns and pictures into it and then fried in hot fat or oil. It’s delicious and 100% necessary with any meal over the Christmas period. Best with butter and a lot of it!
10. Kæst Skata e. Putrefied Skate
Putrefied Skate (Kæst Skata) - fish dish Icelanders eat the day before Christmas
Kæst Skata, or putrefied skate, is the fish we eat on Þorláksmessa (the day before Christmas). It’s not a bad fish per se, BUT Icelanders cook in an odd way and the smell, well, let’s just say you can really tell from your Christmas gifts who cooked it at their home. It’s tasty but also an acquired taste and only for the brave-hearted!
11. Jólasveinar / Yule Lads / Santa Clauses (yes, plural)
Icelandic Santa Clauses - Yule Lads or Jólasveinar
Icelanders can never really do something halfway, and our Santa Clauses are no different. One wasn't enough, we have 13 Santa Clauses, and then there are Grýla and Leppalúði, who are their parents, and Jólakötturinn, their evil cat that will eat you if you don't get something new to wear for Christmas.
The difference, though, is that the Icelandic Yule Lads, as they are often called, didn't use to be nice. They were rude men, bullies even, that stole and stalked and acted out. Thankfully that is all in the past now, and they bring tiny gifts in kids' shoes from the 11th to the 24th of December. Here are the names of the Icelandic Santa Clauses and the dates of their arrival:
Stekkjarstaur comes on the 12th of December.
Giljagaur comes on the 13th of December.
Stúfur comes on the 14th of December.
Þvörusleikir comes on the 15th of December.
Pottasleikir comes on the 16th of December.
Askasleikir comes on the 17th of December.
Hurðaskellir comes on the 18th of December.
Skyrgámur comes on the 19th of December.
Bjúgnakrækir comes on the 20th of December.
Gluggagægir comes on the 21st of December.
Gáttaþefur comes on the 22nd of December.
Ketkrókur comes á Þorláksmessu, 23rd of December.
Kertasníkir comes á aðfangadag, 24th of December.
12. Malt and Appelsín
Oh, the heavenly mix of Malt and Appelsín. How to start an argument between Icelanders? Ask a group of them, “how to mix the best Malt and Appelsín?” They will all have opinions on it, and they will all be right because their “grandfather made it this way” or “that’s the only way to make it.” If you want the safe option, just buy the premixed version. It’s commonly loved.
It’s safe to say that the Icelandic diet over December will consist of at least 50% mandarins and clementines. They are sooo good and fresh and have a great balance of the white sugar and salt overload that takes place during this time. They can be bought at any local food shop, and it’s really a must-eat every Christmas.
Have you tried any of these Icelandic traditions? Let us know in the comments below!