A good mix between pagan traditions, amazing stories, cozy times, and more holiday candy than you can ever imagine – Christmas in Iceland has it all. Make sure to prepare for naughty elves and smelly fish as you embark on a holiday journey in this winter wonderland.
Ever wondered what would happen if Santa had elves that weren’t so nice, or if they had a pet that ate naughty children? Christmas in Iceland is certainly cold and snowy. Now, knowing a little about Iceland, we know that they are sitting on so much more than cozy sweaters and hot chocolate. Join us in this article to find out what Christmas traditions in Iceland is all about!
Does Iceland Celebrate Christmas?
Even though you might consider Iceland to be about Viking stronghold with pagan rituals and mysterious runes, it is in reality a deeply Christian country. They are also incredibly into anything festive, they love elves, and they often have proper snowfalls for Christmas. This setting will turn any Grinch into a jolly X-mas lover.
Christmas in Iceland turns these Vikings into jolly and festive party animals. Add over-the-top decorations and good vibes all around as well. The holiday is celebrated in Iceland on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas day. That’s something good to keep in mind, so you don’t miss out on any of the festivities.
Christmas Traditions in Iceland
The best thing to do for Christmas in Iceland is to delve into the folktales and stories about various natural sites. The traditions in Iceland go back several hundred years and are a bit meshed with some pagan beliefs and figures. So, getting some knowledge during your visit might help you understand things better. One, very clear annotation is the Icelandic name for Christmas: Jól.
Jól comes from the old Germanic word “Yule” which was the period in the middle to end of December and was often a time of celebration for various pagan rituals. The most prominent one was the Wild Hunt, or Great Hunt, that Odin made each year together with his fellow gods (Asar). Variations of Yule are used all over the Northern European region and are now only used in the context of Christmas. In short, it is simply the name most Northern Europeans used instead of “Christmas”.
A Christian tradition in Iceland is to start lighting the advent candles, four Sundays before Christmas. This is a tradition about anticipating the festivities and having a moment of quiet reflection on values and bringing the family, group of friends, or even work colleagues together. Christmas in Iceland is such a big event that these candles and other traditions are often incorporated in schools and job sites.
Christmas in Iceland starts on December 12th when the first of the Yule Lads comes down from the mountain. The festivities end on January 6th when the last of them go back up into the mountains. There are 13 Yule Lads, and they are all Christmas symbols in Iceland. Each one is known for its specific mischief.
Elves are an ancient belief for Icelanders and are a very prominent part of Icelandic folklore. These Santa-looking elves are sons of the hideous trolls Gryla and Leppaludi. One old fable says that Gryla comes down around Christmas and cooks children in a big pot for her hungry troll-husband. Their big and mean cat eats children who have been naughty throughout the year. It’s quite the step-up from the usual “get a lump of coal”.
Iceland Christmas traditions have evolved a bit since the Viking age. One of the most striking modern traditions for Christmas in Iceland is the incredible amount of Christmas lights being put up. In some towns and neighborhoods, competitions will be held. Important Christmas symbols in Iceland, like Santas, reindeer, elves, etc., will score high. People make sure to have all important elements on their property in the ocean of lights.
If you happen to be in the northern part of Iceland at any time of the year, you can visit The Christmas Garden which keeps modern Iceland Christmas traditions alive, all year round!
Being the largest city in Iceland and having more than half of the nation’s population, Reykjavík has mastered the art of everything Christmas. The streets are filled with decorations, the restaurant scene is impeccable, and the markets look like they are straight from the North Pole.
Christmas cuisine. Iceland during Christmas is filled with all sorts of odd dishes and tasty treats. Some might surprise you, but most will delight you!
A typical Christmas menu normally includes Hangikjöt (smoked meat), hamborgarhryggur (seasoned gammon steak), and laufabrauð (thin, crispy bread). Other well-known options include:
One particularly surprising dish is the putrefied Skata, or Skate. People eat it the day before Christmas. It has such a strong smell of ammonia that it will not only stay in your clothes for days, but also go so far as to attach to your skin. It is like the stinky cheeses – an acquired taste that can be really good once you get into it.
Christmas in Iceland provides food in all shapes and sizes, even boiled sheep head! This is a well-known dish that can be had all over the world, but Icelanders mostly eat this during Christmas. It’s not the norm for most people, but delicious once you try it out.
Apart from that, Christmas traditions in Iceland have a lot to do with baking cookies and candies and drinking all sorts of tasty hot beverages. Among the most famous ones are: Lagkaka, Vínarterta, and Brúnkaka.
You will often find that families bake an abundance of cookies to treat work colleagues, fellow kids at school, and (of course) friends and family.
Listen, if you are ever in Iceland during Christmas, not going to a Christmas market might be a crime. Here you will find a cornucopia of gifts, trinkets, and knitted sweaters. As we know, Christmas in Iceland has food and treats that are out of this world, and you can find plenty of that in the stalls. Some stalls will even be open half of the day on Iceland Christmas Eve. The Reykjavík Christmas markets are held in various places around the city, so it will be hard to miss any of them.
You will find Christmas markets in most of the larger towns and some farms in Iceland, so don’t be sad if you can’t attend the Reykjavík Christmas markets. Having your own car and going to the town or farm of your choice in December is always preferred over not having the option. Hire your vehicle at the best car rental in Iceland (yes, that's us!) and come drive through this winter wonderland to start off your magical Christmas in Iceland the right way!