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Icelandic Christmas Traditions

How To Spend Christmas In Iceland: 13 Santas, Christmas Cat, Cookies And More!

|October 31, 2023
Anhelina is a travel writer with over five years of experience specializing in Iceland. With a background in foreign languages and translation, she conducts in-depth research to provide readers with detailed insights into Iceland's landscapes, culture, and hidden gems.

Icelandic Christmas? It's a whole different jingle! Beyond the twinkling lights and festive cheer, there are unique traditions that make Iceland's ‘Yuletide’ truly special. Ever heard of 13 mischievous Yule Lads instead of just one Santa? Or the Christmas Cat that eats children? Dive into Christmas traditions in Iceland below!


JÓL: ICELAND'S CHRISTMAS SEASON

Joyful embrace during Christmas gift exchange by the festive tree.

Embrace the mystical Yuletide of Iceland, where 13 Yule Lads bring gifts and mischief for 26 days.

In Iceland, we cherish the enchanting season of Jól, akin to the English "yule." But our Jól is no fleeting affair, and it lasts a full 26 days, incorporating tradition, folklore, and festivity. And if you ever find yourself in Iceland during this time, don't forget to greet the locals with a hearty "Gleðileg jól!" – that's "Merry Christmas" in Icelandic!

It all begins on 12 December with the arrival of the first Yule Lad, those mischievous figures from our ancient tales. Unlike one Santa Claus, we have 13 of them, each with a distinct personality. They grace us with their presence, descending from the mountains individually. Children place their shoes by the window, hoping for gifts or even a potato if they've been naughty.

But the Yule Lads' antics and gift-giving don't cease on Christmas Day. They last until 6 January, a day known as "Þrettándinn" or the Thirteenth. It's a day of enchantment, where Icelandic folklore suggests that the extraordinary happens. Elves and hidden folk come alive, cows speak, and seals become human (allegedly).

IS ICELAND A GOOD PLACE TO SPEND CHRISTMAS?

December in Iceland is a month-long celebration. If you're keen on experiencing the heart of Icelandic festivities, explore our full guide to December in Iceland. You will find unique traditions and celebrations full of Icelandic spirit.

And as December winds down, Iceland gears up for a New Year's celebration that outshines even the brightest stars. A sky ablaze with fireworks, bonfires around the country, and an infectious celebratory spirit. Interested? Dive into the details of the New Year's celebration in Iceland. It's a festivity that calls everyone outdoors.

Fireworks illuminate the night sky above Reykjavik's iconic Hallgrímskirkja church during Iceland's festive season.

New year fireworks in Reykjavik near Hallgrímskirkja.

In Iceland, the festive season goes beyond Christmas traditions. We also celebrate our winter landscapes and seasonal activities. Join our Christmas tours and witness the iconic winter sights of the Golden Circle, delve into the mesmerizing depths of ice caves, and feel the thrill of exciting snowmobile rides across pristine snowy terrains. Reykjavik's lively holiday atmosphere and the spellbinding Northern Lights are just the beginning. You'll discover why Iceland's winter is truly magical with every step. Join us, and let's embrace the Icelandic winter holidays together!

13 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN ICELAND

In Iceland, we don't just celebrate the typical 12 days of Christmas – we revel in 13! Thanks to our 13 Yule Lads, each day leading up to Christmas is filled with anticipation. From the cheeky Window Peeper to the mischievous Doorway Sniffer, these trolls make sure there’s never a dull moment.

This extension of the holiday season can be traced back to the use of the old Julian calendar, which Icelanders used before adopting the Gregorian calendar in 1700. Under the Julian calendar, Christmas Day fell approximately 13 days later than it does on the Gregorian calendar. When Iceland transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in the 18th century, the celebration of Christmas and the Yule season shifted, but the tradition of the 13-day celebration remained. This historical connection with the old calendar adds an extra layer of uniqueness to Iceland's Christmas traditions.

Family sits together on snowy porch, flanked by decorated Christmas trees, embracing holiday spirit.

Icelandic Christmas extends beyond the typical festivities with 13 days of whimsical Yule Lad celebrations.

St Thorlac’s Mass (Þorláksmessa): As 23 December dawns, we pay homage to Thorlac Thorhallsson, our patron saint. And what's a celebration without food? The aroma of skate, a traditional fish dish, fills the air, marking this special day.

Christmas Eve (Aðfangadagur): The heart of Icelandic Christmas beats strongest on 24 December. Families unite, laughter echoes, and the table groans under the weight of hangikjöt. As the clock strikes midnight, gifts are exchanged, and the "Jólabókaflód," Iceland Christmas Eve tradition, comes alive. With books in hand, we lose ourselves in old and new tales.

Christmas Day (Jóladagur): After the excitement of Christmas Eve, 25 December is a day to bask in the warmth of family, relish the gifts, and indulge in yet another feast.

Boxing Day (Annar í jólum): Known to us as "the second day of Christmas," 26 December is when we leave our homes. With friends by our side and music in the air, it's a day to celebrate and make memories.

New Year's Eve* (Gamlársdagur): On 31 December, Icelanders bid farewell to the year in a grand manner. Reykjavik's skyline lights up with fireworks, creating a mesmerizing spectacle. Families and friends gather for a festive meal, and many attend bonfires (‘brenna’) held throughout the city.

New Year's Day* (Nýársdagur): As 1 January dawns, Icelanders welcome the new year with optimism and cheer. Traditionally, it's a day of rest and spending time with loved ones. Many also attend church services to seek blessings for the year ahead. 

*While these two days are not part of the Advent or the 13 days of Christmas, they hold significant importance in Icelandic culture, marking the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

The 13th Day of Christmas (Þrettándinn): As 6 January arrives, the enchantment of Christmas begins to wilt. But not before one last hurrah! Legends come alive - cows might whisper secrets, and seals might shed their skins to dance as humans. It's a day when anything is possible.

ICELANDIC CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS

1. THE 13 YULE LADS

Icelandic Santa Clauses - Yule Lads or Jólasveinar

In Iceland, we don't just settle for one Santa – we have 13! These Yule Lads, each with their own quirks and names, are a unique Icelandic twist on the festive season. Gone are the days when they were known for their mischief and pranks. Now, they're all about bringing a bit of joy. From the 12th to the 24th of December, kids place their shoes by the window, hoping for gifts from these quirky visitors. But a word of caution: naughty ones might just find a potato!

And it's not just the Yule Lads. They come from quite a family. Grýla and Leppalúði, their parents from the old Icelandic tales, and let's not forget Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat. This feline isn't your regular house cat; it's said to have a taste for those without new Christmas clothes!

Here's your guide to the Yule Lads and their arrival dates, complete with their English names:

  • Stekkjarstaur (Sheep-Cote Clod) - 12th of December.
  • Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) - 13th of December.
  • Stúfur (Stubby) - 14th of December.
  • Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker) - 15th of December.
  • Pottasleikir (Pot-Scraper) - 16th of December.
  • Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker) - 17th of December.
  • Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer) - 18th of December.
  • Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler) - 19th of December.
  • Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper) - 20th of December.
  • Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper) - 21st of December.
  • Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer) - 22nd of December.
  • Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) - 23rd of December.
  • Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer) - 24th of December.

Which Yule Lad would keep you on your toes?

2. JÓLABÓKAFLÓÐ - THE BOOK AVALANCHE

Lovely elderly woman read fairy tales for children on Christmas.

Jólabókaflóð is a cherished tradition that celebrates the joy of reading and the love of literature.

On the evening of Christmas Eve, Icelanders embrace a heartwarming tradition known as "Jólabókaflóð," which translates to the "Christmas Book Flood." This charming custom combines two of our greatest loves: books and coziness.

As the day turns into night and the stars twinkle above, families come together in their festively decorated homes. The air is filled with the delightful aroma of the Christmas meal. But before we delve into the culinary delights, there's another tradition to uphold.

It all begins with the exchange of books. Each family member gives and receives a book, creating a sense of anticipation and excitement. As the candles flicker and the warmth of the fireplace envelops us, we open our new books and lose ourselves in captivating stories. It's a tranquil and magical moment shared with loved ones.

Jólabókaflóð is a cherished tradition that celebrates the joy of reading and the love of literature. It's a time when we disconnect from the world's hustle and bustle, immersing ourselves in the pages of a good book.

To learn more about Jólabókaflóð, delve into our dedicated article on this heartwarming Icelandic Christmas Eve tradition.

3. ICELANDIC CHRISTMAS FOOD

Plate of traditional Icelandic Christmas meal with roasted poultry, vegetables, and lingonberry sauce.

Traditional Icelandic Christmas meal with roasted poultry, vegetables, and lingonberry sauce.

Hangikjöt e. Hanging Meat (smoked lamb)

This isn't just any lamb! it's smoked to perfection and often served either cold or hot in slices. Accompanying this delicacy, you'll usually find potatoes drenched in a creamy béchamel sauce, vibrant green peas, and the ever-crunchy laufabrauð. The name 'Hanging Meat' refers to the olden days when food was smoked by hanging it from the rafters of a shed, ensuring its preservation for the colder months. A bite of this, and you'll understand why it's a must-have on every Icelandic Christmas table.

Hamborgarhryggur (smoked pork center rib roast)

Think of a juicy gammon steak but with an Icelandic twist. This dish is a festive favorite, glazed with sugar and often decorated with pineapple slices and cocktail cherries. And the best way to enjoy it? With caramelized potatoes and a side of Waldorf salad, of course.

Kæst Skata (Skate fish)

Now, this is for the bold-hearted. Eaten on Þorláksmessa, the day before Christmas, Kæst Skata is a putrefied skate. It might sound challenging, but it's a tradition that many Icelanders cherish. The unique aroma and preparation method make it stand out, but give it a try, and you might just be pleasantly surprised.

Jólajógúrt (Christmas yogurt)

As the festive season approaches, there's one thing many Icelanders eagerly wait for – the Jólajógúrt. Spotted in local stores, this Christmas Yogurt is a traditional, nostalgic treat. And once you taste it, you'll see why it's a staple in many Icelandic homes during the holidays.

Rjúpa (Ptarmigan or Grouse)

The rjúpa is a wild bird native to Iceland and has been a cherished part of the Icelandic Christmas menu for centuries. Its popularity as a festive dish can be traced back to times when food was scarce, and hunting the bird in the wild was a means of supplementing the winter diet.

For those keen to delve deeper into Icelandic Christmas cuisine, don't miss our detailed article on Traditional Christmas Food. Trust us, your taste buds will thank you!

4. ICELANDIC CHRISTMAS DRINKS

Traditional Icelandic Christmas beverages, Appelsín and Malt, displayed among festive decorations.

Traditional Icelandic Christmas beverages, Appelsín and Malt.

Malt og Appelsín

A classic Icelandic Christmas drink, this delightful concoction mixes malt extract and orange soda. It's a sweet, frothy beverage that's often the center of debates among Icelanders – to mix or not to mix before drinking? Either way, it's a festive favorite that perfectly captures the spirit of Icelandic Christmas.

Jólaöl

Not to be confused with Christmas beers, Jólaöl is a non-alcoholic blend of malt and appelsín, offering a sweeter, maltier taste. It's a traditional drink that has warmed the hearts of Icelanders for generations, especially when sipped by the fireplace.

Brennivín

Often referred to as 'Black Death,' Brennivín is a potent schnapps made from fermented potatoes and caraway. While available year-round, it takes a special place during Christmas, especially when paired with hákarl (fermented shark). It's an acquired taste but deeply rooted in Icelandic tradition.

Christmas Beers

Since the end of the beer prohibition in 1989, Icelandic breweries have embraced the art of crafting special beers for the festive season. Ranging from light ales with hints of citrus to dark lagers with notes of chocolate and coffee, there's a Christmas beer for every plate. Many locals eagerly await the release of these limited-edition brews, making them an integral part of the Icelandic Yuletide celebrations.

For those who thirst for knowledge and love Icelandic traditions, dive deeper into our comprehensive article on Icelandic Christmas Beer. Cheers to a festive season filled with joy, laughter, and delightful drinks!

5. LAUFABRAUÐ – THE LEAF BREAD

A close-up of traditional Icelandic laufabrauð, intricately patterned flatbreads, with a special cutting tool.

Laufabrauð - traditional Icelandic Christmas bread.

Deep within the heart of Icelandic Christmas traditions, you'll find Laufabrauð, a bread that's as much a work of art as it is a culinary delight. Often referred to as "leaf bread" or "snowflake bread," its intricate designs mirror the delicate patterns of frost on a winter window.

The preparation of Laufabrauð is a cherished family ritual. While you can find it in shops or bakeries, many Icelandic families prefer to make it at home. Family members gather around the kitchen table, rolling out the dough into thin, round sheets. They carve intricate patterns and designs with utmost care, each piece telling its own story. Once adorned with its beautiful patterns, the bread is quickly fried in hot fat or oil, turning it golden and crispy. The result? A delicate, crunchy bread.

Whether paired with the rich flavors of hangikjöt or simply enjoyed with a generous spread of butter, Laufabrauð is an essential part of the Icelandic Christmas meal, bringing warmth and tradition to every bite.

6. ICELANDIC CHRISTMAS COOKIES

Ah, the sweet aroma of baked goods in Iceland at Christmas! One cannot truly embrace the Yuletide spirit without indulging in traditional Icelandic Christmas cookies. In Iceland, you'll find many popular varieties of these delightful treats, each with its unique twist on holiday sweetness.

Traditional Icelandic Christmas Cookies

Traditional Christmas cookies (Jólasmákökur) in Iceland.

Jólasmákökur (Christmas cookies)

These classic Icelandic Christmas cookies are beloved for their tender, crumbly texture and subtle sweetness. They often feature hints of spices like cardamom or cinnamon and are adorned with colorful sprinkles or icing for a festive touch. Families come together to bake and decorate these cookies, sharing stories and traditions along the way.

Marens Kornflexkokur (Icelandic Chocolate Cornflake Cookies)

On the other hand, Marens Kornflexkokur stands out for its crunchy, chocolaty goodness. These cookies are characterized by including cornflakes, which provide a delightful crunch and a rich, chocolatey flavor. While they may not be as visually decorated as Jólasmákökur, their rustic charm and unique texture make them equally delightful.

To be fair, there are many more varieties of Icelandic Christmas cookies that celebrate Icelandic Christmas traditions and culture. With a few simple ingredients and a bit of time, you can create a batch of these mouthwatering treats to enjoy during the festive season. And if you're feeling adventurous, try drizzling some salt over chocolate for that extra oomph. It’s a game-changer!

  • Sörur: Think of a French actress named Sarah Bernhardt, and then imagine a cookie inspired by her. It's a delightful mix of chocolate and buttercream. Trust me; it's hard to stop at one.

  • Lakkrístoppar: Now, these are a bit modern but very delicious. Meringue cookies with a hint of licorice and, if you're lucky, a dash of chocolate. A must-try!

  • Spesíur: If you want something simple yet satisfying, go for these. A sugar cookie with a chocolate center. Pro tip: Make the dough a day in advance; it makes all the difference.

  • Hálfmánar: The name means "half moon," and they're as dreamy as they sound. Often filled with jam, they're a sweet surprise in every bite.

  • Piparkökur: Iceland's answer to gingerbread cookies. They've got the right amount of spice and sweetness. Perfect with a cup of cocoa.

  • Vanilluhringir: These are classic vanilla cookies. You might find different versions of them, but the core essence remains the same: pure vanilla goodness.

  • Bessastaðakökur: Now, these have a presidential touch. Imagine a cookie so good it's served at the President's residence. That's Bessastaðakökur for you, with almonds and sugar playing the lead roles.

So, why not try your hand at Jólasmákökur and Marens Kornflexkokur this holiday season? They're a treat for the taste buds and a delightful way to immerse yourself in Icelandic Christmas traditions.

7. AÐVENTUKRANS – ADVENT WREATH

Aðventukrans is a delightful Christmas tradition in Iceland. It involves lighting four candles, one by one, each Sunday leading up to Christmas. This charming ritual adds a warm, festive glow to homes and hearts during Advent.

Child sits with mother in front of Christmas tree and reading book together.

The wreath symbolizes hope and anticipation during festive season.

Many Icelandic families participate in creating their Aðventukrans, making it a cherished part of their Christmas crafts. As November transitions into December, wreath-making becomes a popular and cozy activity. The best part? Crafting your own wreath is easy, making it accessible for everyone. Whether you're an experienced DIY enthusiast or trying your hand at holiday crafts for the first time, creating an Aðventukrans is joyful and straightforward work.

 

Gathering evergreen branches, decorating them with seasonal elements like pinecones and berries, and adding the four candles to the wreath is a tradition that unites families and fosters a sense of togetherness. As each candle is lit on the Sundays leading up to Christmas, the wreath symbolizes hope and anticipation, gradually illuminating the path to the festive season.

 

So, if you find yourself in Iceland during the Advent season, consider joining in on this heartwarming tradition. Craft your own Aðventukrans, bask in the cozy atmosphere it creates, and revel in the joy of preparing for the most wonderful time of the year.

8. ICELANDIC CHRISTMAS MARKETS

Cozy Icelandic street adorned with Christmas lights and decorations at dusk.

Reykjavik at Christmas: Colorful buildings and festive decorations light up the early winter evening.

In Iceland, Christmas markets are a cherished tradition that adds to the festive spirit. These markets feature local crafts, knitwear, and unique gifts like the traditional Icelandic Lopapeysa, making them perfect for souvenir shopping. Plus, you can indulge in traditional holiday treats like hot cocoa, mulled wine, Laufabrauð, and Christmas cookies.

Live Christmas carols and folk song performances, often accompanied by choirs and musicians, fill the air with music. You might even encounter Icelandic Santas or Yule Lads, spreading holiday cheer. Reykjavik hosts the largest Christmas market, but you can find charming ones in towns and villages across Iceland.

Discover more about Icelandic Christmas markets and their locations.

SUMMARY

Christmas in Iceland is all about the simple joys. With the cold nipping at our noses and daylight playing hard to get, we Icelanders find comfort indoors. The sweet scent of mandarins fills our homes, a must-have treat to balance out the festive feasts. And when we're not munching on the holiday delights? We're huddled around board games and puzzles, keeping the festive spirit alive and dodging those pesky questions from curious relatives. Oh, and if you ever hear an Italian tune turned Icelandic Christmas song, just know it's one of our quirky traditions. Because, why not? It's Christmas, Iceland-style!

Female friends hugging and celebrating Christmas.

Icelandic Christmas: Joy in simplicity with family games, the scent of mandarins, and unique festive tunes.

ICELAND CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS – FAQ

WHAT IS ICELANDIC CHRISTMAS FUN FACTS?

Icelandic Christmas is a blend of quirky and cozy! From Yule Lads to a cat that might gobble you up if you're not dressed in new clothes, we sure know how to keep things interesting.

WHAT IS THE SANTA TRADITION IN ICELAND?

Instead of one Santa, we have 13 Yule Lads! They visit children for 13 nights leading up to Christmas, leaving gifts or potatoes, depending on if you've been naughty or nice.

DOES ICELAND HAVE ANY SYMBOLS FOR CHRISTMAS?

Certainly! Our cherished symbols include the Yule Lads, the Yule Cat, and the beautiful Laufabrauð (leaf bread). Not to forget, our homes twinkling with festive lights against the snowy backdrop.

HOW DOES ICELAND WORSHIP CHRISTMAS?

While Iceland is predominantly Lutheran, the focus during Christmas is more on traditions and family gatherings than religious ceremonies. However, many attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Find out more about our unique Iceland Christmas Eve tradition.

WHAT ARE ICELAND CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS?

From the mischievous antics of the 13 Yule Lads and the tales of the Yule Cat to devouring hangikjöt and playing board games indoors, our traditions combine the quirkiness and the heartwarming legacy. Read about them above!

WHAT ARE SOME FUN FACTS ABOUT CHRISTMAS IN ICELAND?

Did you know we have a "Christmas Book Flood" where books are the most popular gift? Or that we have a special yogurt just for Christmas? And let's not forget about our 13 Santas!

WHAT DO ICELANDIC PEOPLE EAT AT CHRISTMAS?

For the Icelandic palate, Christmas is a feast! We indulge in hangikjöt (smoked lamb), rjúpa (ptarmigan), and laufabrauð (leaf bread). There's also kæst skata (putrefied skate) for the brave-hearted and delightful treats like Jólajógúrt (Christmas Yogurt). And don't get us started on the array of Christmas cookies! Learn more about Icelandic Christmas food.

WHAT IS TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS IN ICELAND?

Traditional Christmas in Iceland is a blend of age-old folklore and modern festivities. Think Yule Lads instead of Santa, homes adorned with Christmas lights, families gathering to cut patterns in laufabrauð, and the anticipation of the Yule Cat's tales. It's a time of stories, songs, food, and family.

WHAT IS SMOKED LAMB IN ICELAND FOR CHRISTMAS?

That's our beloved hangikjöt! It's lamb that's been smoked, giving it a distinct flavor. Traditionally, it's either boiled or served in slices, often accompanied by white béchamel sauce, green peas, and laufabrauð. It's a centerpiece of our Christmas table!

WHAT IS THE ICELANDIC TRADITION FOR CHRISTMAS EVE?

Christmas Eve, or Þorláksmessa, is a special time in Iceland. It's when we might feast on kæst skata and eagerly await the midnight hour, which marks the official start of Christmas. Many families exchange and open gifts at this time, and it's not uncommon for folks to attend a midnight mass. It's a night filled with anticipation, joy, and togetherness.

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