Christmas in Iceland is a special time with plenty of fascinating traditions. Here's all you need to know about the jolly season in the Land of Fire and Ice!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year for many, but what is spending Christmas in Iceland really like? In this article, we’ll explore Iceland’s festive traditions, from the somewhat familiar to the downright bizarre. We will also give you a little insight into how it feels to spend the holiday season in the ´Land of Fire and Ice´. Read on to find out all about Iceland’s winter festivities. We’ll be covering the following:
Christmas in Iceland looks pretty similar to the way it does in most Northern Hemisphere countries that celebrate it. Pretty lights twinkle out from homes and town centers, brightening up the long, dark nights. Shops and Christmas markets fill their shelves with festive gifts and treats. And there is a general upbeat buzz of activity and anticipation.
Being so far north, Iceland has the benefit of an almost guaranteed white Christmas, too. So magical snowy scenes are almost certainly guaranteed. Everyone loves a dusting of snow at Christmas, and Iceland definitely knows how to deliver on that score. The country is used to it too. So, unlike in many other countries, things don’t grind to a halt when the snow comes down.
So, all in all, this is likely sounding pretty familiar so far. But there are several points of difference in Iceland’s festive calendar. As well as one or two Christmas characters that you certainly won’t have met outside of Iceland.
Christmas celebrations kick off in early December in Iceland. In fact, the official Christmas season runs from December 11th right through to January 6th. These days are marked by the comings and goings of Iceland’s Yule Lads. These mischievous characters are something akin to Santa Clauses… but more on that later!
Over the first few weeks of Christmas, Icelandic people enjoy getting out and about. There are social gatherings and shopping trips to enjoy. There are several things to do in Reykjavík and some other larger towns, from Christmas markets to ice rinks. Friends and colleagues get together for festive meals and drinks.
Singing is a very popular pursuit in Iceland, and nearly everyone will get involved over the Christmas period. Choirs practice together for concerts and performances all over the country. Singing in the Christmas season and the New Year is a rite of passage in Iceland.
The main difference in terms of celebrating Christmas in Iceland is that the big day here is on December 24th. All the anticipation and build-up lead up to Christmas Eve in Iceland. So this is when families get together for their main Christmas meal.
This means that the day before Christmas falls on the 23rd of December. As this is the last shopping day before Christmas, there is always a lovely festive atmosphere in the town centers. People are buzzing about getting their last-minute gifts and will often meet up with friends for a drink or dinner.
So the 23rd is a great day to be out and about. Friends will often call in at each other’s houses with gifts of Christmas cookies. So it’s a really sociable day with lots of activity. The 24th is then a day set aside for close family. People will usually stay at home, cook together and exchange gifts.
On Christmas Eve in Iceland, families will enjoy a feast together and exchange gifts. The evening is then spent together, often reading books and nibbling on chocolates around the fire. This festive tradition is known as Jolabokaflod. It is a wonderful tradition with an interesting origin, which we’ll tell you more about later.
For now, let’s get back to the Christmas calendar. The day after the big day, or Christmas Day to most of the rest of us, is much more low-key. It is a quiet time for families to spend together. Icelandic people usually enjoy a relaxed and unstructured day. Perhaps with a walk outside, a meal, and a day spent enjoying Christmas gifts received the day before.
The 26th of December is when people start to mingle again. Friends might meet up at each other’s houses or perhaps get out and about in the bars and restaurants. The socializing outside of the home kicks off again, and things start to build up for the New Year celebrations.
Jolabokaflod has to be one of our favorite Christmas traditions in Iceland. If you’re a fan of reading, then you’re going to love it too. Icelandic people love to read and there is a strong tradition of giving books as gifts. The evening is then spent curled up on the sofa, delving into the pages of a brand-new book.
It is a cozy scene, often with candles and firelight and the whole family together reading. People will accompany their reading with sweet treats to nibble and a glass of something warming.
This habit dates back to the Second World War years of rationing. Back then, paper was one of the few things that were not strictly rationed. So the printing press and the publishing industry carried on in full swing. This meant that books were pretty much always the star of the Christmas gift show. And it’s a tradition that has stayed strong over the preceding decades.
Iceland is a very well-educated nation, and nearly everyone loves to read from an early age. They are not only readers, though; there are also an inordinate number of writers in Iceland. One statistic states that one in ten Icelandic people will write a book at some point in their lives!
One way that Christmas is quite different in Iceland is when it comes to Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Instead of just one benevolent Santa dressed in red, there are thirteen in Iceland. You’ll also find that their character is quite different. These guys are much more mischievous than your average Santa!
These thirteen Santas, or Yule Lads as they are known, hail from the mountainous area of North Iceland. They dwell in a cave along with their troll father and mother. Their mother Gryla is a scary character who chases and catches children to cook in her pot. Their father is a lazy so-and-so who is crotchety and likes to eat Gryla’s hot pots and sit around.
They also have a fearsome cat as a pet. Big and fat with long teeth, this scary Christmas cat also likes to hunt naughty children at Christmastime. The Yule Lads used to be a little scarier than they are today, too. But over the years, they have mellowed.
These days they are more playful than spiteful, and children look forward to their visits. The Yule Lads visit one by one on each of the thirteen days leading up to Christmas Eve. They arrive in the night, playing tricks on households, and will also bring gifts. Each night, children will leave their shoes next to the window, ready to receive their surprise. The thing is that the surprise could be something not so welcome, such as an old potato!
Each Yule Lad has a name that matches his character and the shenanigans that they like to get up to. There is Bowl Licker, Door Slammer, and Sausage Stealer, to name just a few.
So by Christmas Eve, all the Yule Lads are out and about around Iceland. But on Christmas Day, the first one of the bunch will head back up into the hills of North Iceland. Another one will leave each day up until January 6th. By then, all the family will be safely tucked away at home for another year.
Visiting Reykjavík at Christmastime is becoming more and more popular. The festive markets and snowy scenes offer a real taste of a traditional Christmas. Reykjavík really is a city that does Christmas well. It’s not overly commercial and packed with people. But it has just the right buzz and a good dose of cozy, with welcoming bars and cafés to warm up in.
It is also a fabulous city for access to the great outdoors. Visitors during winter will be able to get out and see beautiful snowy landscapes. There is also a very good chance of seeing the Northern Lights at this time of year. And you can even see them from parts of Reykjavík at times.
Several activities are close to the capital city, such as the Hafnarfjordur Christmas Village. This municipality is located just 20 minutes away from Reykjavík. You can quickly get there with your rental car in Iceland and enjoy the hot drinks, crafts, snacks, and Icelandic delicacies! If you are visiting at Christmas, one thing to note is that you should book your restaurants very well in advance. Tables will book up fast, and some family-run restaurants will even close their doors for the Christmas period.
Christmas obviously falls in mid-winter in Iceland. This is a time of very short days and long, dark nights. Around the winter solstice, there will only be around four hours of daylight each day. With the sun just rising over the horizon before setting again and letting the stars come out to sparkle.
The weather will be cool and there will be snow on the ground. You’ll almost certainly enjoy fresh snowfall, and there will be plenty of the white stuff around for making snow angels. Having said that, the average temperatures in South Iceland in winter are very manageable.
The temperature is usually around 3-4 degrees Celsius, dipping below freezing at night. So as long as you wrap up warm with gloves, scarves, and decent coats and boots you’ll be fine. If you head north the temperatures do drop a little, and of course, if a storm blows in things can get a lot chillier.
There is a lot to do in Iceland in winter, from wandering the Christmas markets to hitting the ski slopes. Winter activities abound with snow sports popular as well as glacier hiking and delving into magical ice caves. Of course, this is the time of year when you are most likely to see the Northern Lights, too. And there is also ample opportunity for sightseeing, albeit on a shorter timescale, as the daylight allows.
For more information on planning your winter trip to Iceland, visit these related articles.