Icelandic Christmas Traditions
Iceland has a unique culture surrounding its Christmas revels. Many of the northern Scandinavian countries draw their Christmas celebrations from the ancient traditions of the winter solstice. In particular, the honoring of Jól (Yule). There are themes of hope, renewal, and redemption, the victory of light and life over dark and death. In Iceland there are six days of Jól merriment, each with its own significance.
Þorláksmessa is Iceland’s day to honor its major Saint, Heilagur Þorlákur Þórhallsson, or St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson, the Bishop of Skálholt. On the day of his death, December 23rd, the main custom is eating a simple meal of skata or skate. The Jól (Christmas) tree is usually decorated on this day. This is also a big shopping day for last minute gifts, with stores remaining open until midnight.
Aðfangadagur is Iceland’s celebration of Christmas Eve/Jól Eve. Celebrations begin at 6:00pm, following the Icelandic tradition of starting the days at 6:00pm instead of midnight. After the evening meal, the children begin to open their presents.
Jóladagur, December 25, is a day spent with extended family. On this day, families typically enjoy Hangikjöt (a leg of roast lamb), Rjúpa (Rock Ptarmigan, a gamebird) or Laufabrauð (leaf bread, a fried delicacy made of thin sheets of dough cut into ornate patterns typically designed specifically for each family).
Annar Jóladagur, December 26, is another opportunity to spend time with friends and family, and more feasting. While public entertainment is considered inappropriate on Jól Eve and Jól Day, it is on this day that dancing is allowed in public once more.
Gamlárskvöld/Nýársdagur, the New Year’s celebration, is considered one of the most important times in the Icelandic culture. Magical things are said to occur then, including talking cows, seals in the form of humans, the dead rising from the grave, and elves moving houses. Since the late 1700s it has been standard practice in Iceland to light a bonfire. Fireworks are also popular to bring in the New Year, a tradition known as “sprengja út árið” or “blowing out the year.”
Þrettándinn, January 6, is the final day of Jól, celebrated with bonfires and elfin dances. This is the magical day New Year’s.
Another significant custom in the celebration of Jól is the arrival of the “Jólasveinarnir” or Jóltide Lads. These magical people take turns descending from the mountains in Iceland each day between December 12th and Jól Eve. Though they first came to Iceland in the 17th Century as the children of bloodthirsty ogres, they are considered playful imps or elves who enjoy eating and playing tricks on people. They leave presents for children in shoes placed on windowsills. Depending on the Lads’ whims, naughty children might receive a potato or a message to be good. Their revels end on Christmas Day, as the last one departs on Þrettándinn. The most popular Jólasveinarnir are Stekkjarstaur (Gimpy), Giljagaur (Gully Imp) Stúfur (Itty Bitty), Þvörusleikir (Pot Scraper Licker), Pottasleikir (Pot Licker), Askasleikir (Bowl Licker), Hurðaskellir (Door Slammer), Skyrgámur (Skyr Gobbler), Skyr (for whom an Icelandic yoghurt is named), Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage Snatcher), Gluggagægir (Window Peeper), GáttaÞefur (Doorway Sniffer), Ketkrókur (Meat Hooker), and Kertasníkir (Candle Beggar). Presents might also be brought by Jólasveinn (Jól Man).
Christmas in New England by Amy Whorf McGuiggan
The Story of Santa Claus by Joseph A. McCullough