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Christmas in Iceland, known as "Jól" in Icelandic, is a vibrant tapestry of tradition, mythology, and community spirit that illuminates the Icelandic winter. Far from being a simple replica of global Christmas customs, the Icelandic version of this holiday is rich with unique practices and narratives deeply embedded in the country's culture.
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Viktória Komjáti
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Published:
21 Mar 2024
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Guides, Culture
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Iceland transforms into a winter wonderland as the festive season approaches, Reykjavík becoming a hub of Yuletide cheer. The Icelandic festive atmosphere is a magical interplay of light and darkness, deeply influenced by the country's unique geographical location and cultural traditions.

As the days shorten dramatically, with daylight dwindling to just a few hours, we begin our festive preparations in October. This early start is a response to the extended nights; homes, streets, and shops start twinkling with lights and decorations, bringing a sense of warmth and brightness to the pervasive darkness. By mid-November, the transformation is almost complete, with towns and villages across Iceland lit up in anticipation of the holiday season.

In Reykjavík, the festive spirit is palpable. The city streets, particularly in the central areas, come alive with an enchanting glow. Shop doors and windows boast Christmas trees and wreaths, each flickering with candles and fairy lights, creating a cozy and inviting atmosphere. The contrast between the early nightfall and the illuminated cityscape adds a mystical charm to the capital.

The use of outdoor candles, known as "úti kerti" in Icelandic, is a hallmark of the festive season. They are commonly placed at the doors of restaurants and shops, and many people also light them on their balconies, creating a cosy, inviting atmosphere. Even cemeteries across Iceland are illuminated with festive lights.

Christmas lights are another vital element of the season's decorations. Streets and homes are adorned with strings of lights.

Above all, the natural spectacle of the Northern Lights adds an otherworldly dimension to the Icelandic Christmas. On clear nights, the aurora borealis can be seen dancing across the sky in vibrant hues of green, pink, and purple. This breathtaking display adds a final touch of magic to the already enchanting Icelandic festive season, reminding locals and visitors alike of the unique beauty of this island at the edge of the Arctic Circle.

The Evolution of Christmas in Iceland

The story of Christmas in Iceland is as enchanting as it is rich, stretching back to the era of the island's first settlers. The ancient Norsemen had a pantheon of gods and a calendar of celebrations deeply intertwined with the natural world. Among these was the Yule, a midwinter festival that marked the end of the shorter days and the gradual return of the sun, a pivotal moment in a land governed by light and darkness.

As Christianity made its way to the shores of Iceland around the turn of the first millennium, it brought with it new traditions and beliefs. However, instead of completely replacing the old pagan customs, a remarkable fusion occurred. The Christian Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, merged seamlessly with the Norse Yule traditions. This amalgamation created a unique version of the holiday that retained the essence of both spiritual perspectives.

One of the most vivid examples of this cultural synthesis is the Icelandic word for Christmas, "jól," directly derived from the Old Norse word "Jól." In ancient times, the Yule season was a period of feasting, merriment, and, importantly, a time to honour the Norse gods and ancestors. These elements of celebration and reverence have seamlessly transitioned into the modern Icelandic Christmas.

Additionally, several customs that are now integral parts of Christmas in Iceland have their roots in these ancient times. The Yule log, once a central feature of Norse winter solstice celebrations, symbolizing warmth and light in the heart of winter, has evolved into the decorative and illuminated Christmas trees we see today.

A group of whimsical figures resembling traditional Santa Clauses, each with unique colorful costumes and long beards, posed playfully on a snowy hill with rocky formations in the background, creating a festive and mythical tableau
The 13 Yule Lads

Meet Iceland’s 13 Yule Lads

The legendary figures of the Yule Lads, an integral part of Icelandic Christmas folklore, also find their origins in the blending of these traditions. Originally depicted as mischievous, even malevolent spirits of Norse mythology, they have transformed over time into more benevolent figures, akin to the modern Santa Claus but retaining their unique Icelandic characteristics and stories.

In the 13 days leading up to Christmas, each Yule Lad descends from the mountains, where they live with their troll parents, Grýla and Leppalúði, and their fearsome Yule Cat. Each night, a different Yule Lad visits the homes of children across Iceland, leaving behind gifts for those who have been good and playful tricks or even potatoes for those who haven't.

What sets these Yule Lads apart is their individual personalities and roles, each based on their unique quirks or habits. Their names are a delightful testament to their characteristics. For instance, there's Stekkjarstaur, or Sheep-Cote Clod, who has a penchant for harassing sheep. Then there's Giljagaur, or Gully Gawk, who stealthily steals foam from buckets of cow milk. Stúfur, or Stubby, the shortest of them all, is known for pilfering pans to eat the crusts left behind.

"Two figures dressed in traditional Icelandic Yule Lad costumes, with long white beards and colorful robes, standing in a snowy landscape, one in the foreground holding a wooden staff, and the other in the background amidst bare winter branches.

As the days progress towards Christmas, children eagerly anticipate the arrival of each Yule Lad, guessing what mischief or gifts they might bring. The Yule Lads include Door Slammer, who enjoys making loud noises at night, and Skyr Gobbler, who has a notorious love for skyr, a traditional Icelandic dairy product.

These characters, deeply ingrained in Icelandic culture, have evolved over the years. Historically, they were depicted as much more menacing figures, a reflection of the harsh Icelandic winters and the challenges of rural life. Over time, influenced by global traditions like that of Santa Claus, they have become more benevolent, bringing joy and excitement to children during the Christmas season.

Nowadays, the Yule Lads have become a symbol of the Christmas spirit, embodying the playfulness, anticipation, and magic that the season brings. They are celebrated in various ways, from appearances in town and city events to being featured in decorations and stories. Their daily visits form a fundamental part of the Icelandic countdown to Christmas, infusing the festive season with a distinctive charm and character that is uniquely Icelandic.

The Quaint Charm of Iceland's Christmas Markets

Icelandic Christmas markets, while charming and festive, are typically smaller and less expansive compared to those in other European capitals. These intimate gatherings offer a cosy, enchanting experience that perfectly encapsulates the festive spirit of this tiny nation.

Capital's Christmas Charm at Ingolfstorg Square

Reykjavík's central square, Ingólfstorg, is transformed into a winter fairytale with twinkling lights, festive stalls, and the inviting aroma of seasonal treats. The main attraction is the illuminated ice rink. For a small fee, visitors can glide across the ice, while kids under six enjoy free entry. Open from December 1st-23rd and select dates after that, it's a hub of holiday joy.

Heiðmörk's Nature Reserve Market

Just a short drive from Reykjavík, a small corner of Heiðmörk becomes a quaint Christmas market each Advent weekend. Offering handcrafted items and sustainable Christmas trees, it's the perfect spot for thoughtful gifting.

Hafnarfjordur's Enchanted Christmas Village

In the elfin town of Hafnarfjörður, festive stalls and a Christmas tree set the scene for a market with over two decades of history. An ice rink adds to the fun, open for a small fee during the afternoons and evenings. The market itself welcomes visitors on weekends and extends hours on December 23rd for a final festive flourish.

Árbær Open Air Museum's Christmas Past

Step back in time at Árbær Open Air Museum, where traditional Icelandic Christmas comes to life. From knitting and crafting sessions to tasting traditional dishes, it's an interactive historical celebration. The museum hosts special events on the first three Sundays of Advent.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Celebrations

The celebration of Christmas Eve, or Aðfangadagur, stands as the pinnacle of the holiday season, brimming with tradition and familial warmth. As the evening of Christmas Eve unfolds, families, dressed in their festive best, come together to indulge in lavish feasts that showcase traditional Icelandic culinary delights.

A highlight of this festive night is the tradition related to Jólabókaflóð, or the Christmas Book Flood. This term actually refers to the period leading up to Christmas during Advent, when there is a deluge of new books released in Iceland. It's a time when the literary world comes alive, and the anticipation for new books reaches its peak.

The culmination of Jólabókaflóð is on Christmas Eve when these eagerly awaited books are presented as gifts. The tradition extends into the night as families cosy up to delve into the pages of their new books, immersing themselves in the joy of reading amidst the festive atmosphere.

Christmas Day in Iceland ushers in a more relaxed and leisurely pace. After the excitement and emotional richness of Christmas Eve, the day is often spent in the comforting presence of loved ones. Activities are unhurried and centred around enjoyment and relaxation.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day together capture the heart of the Icelandic festive spirit – a blend of rich traditions, deep family connections, and the simple pleasures of life, all set against the stunning backdrop of Iceland's enchanting winter scenery.

Threttándinn: The Enchanting Closure of Iceland's Christmas Season

The festive spirit of Christmas extends beyond December 25th, ending in a unique celebration known as Þrettándinn, held on January 6th. This day marks the official closure of the Christmas period, weaving together tradition, folklore, and a festive spirit.

Þrettándinn translates to the "Thirteenth Day", and it symbolizes the last of the Yule Lads returning to their mountainous home, thus concluding their annual visit to the children of Iceland.

The day is marked by various festivities that blend folklore with modern customs. In towns and villages across Iceland, bonfires, known as "brenna," are lit, creating a mesmerizing glow against the winter night sky. These fires symbolize the burning away of the old year, making way for new beginnings.

It's a night when elves, trolls, and other mythical beings are believed to emerge and wander amongst humans. This blending of the magical and the everyday adds an otherworldly charm to the festivities. Parades and gatherings often feature people dressed as these mythical creatures, bringing to life the rich tapestry of Icelandic folklore.

Fireworks are another highlight of Þrettándinn, reminiscent of New Year's Eve celebrations. The sky is illuminated with spectacular displays, adding to the already magical atmosphere of the night. This fusion of fire and light is symbolic, representing both the farewell to Christmas and the welcoming of the year ahead.

All You Need to Know About Christmas in Iceland

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