While there are many familiar holiday traditions in Iceland, like cookies, decorations, and Christmas trees, there are some slight Icelandic variations. Such as the 13 rascally Yule Lads instead of Santa Claus, the striking ammonia smell of eating skate on the 23rd, and a terrifying Yule Cat that eats naughty children.
1. The 13 Yule Lads
Many mysterious figures from the same Yule-troll family appear during the Icelandic holiday season. The 13 Yule Lads are sometimes called the Icelandic Santas, but they are certainly not saints! They are pranksters and rascals with cravings reflected in their names. For example, there is Spoon Licker, Door Slammer, Skyr Gobbler, and Sausage Stealer. Each of the thirteen nights before Christmas, one Yule Lad comes down from their mountain cave to bring small gifts to children who have placed a shoe on their windowsill. It might be a small toy, candy, or a healthier snack like a mandarin orange. Children with room for improvement can expect a rotten potato!
2. Christmas in North Iceland
Christmas celebrations never cease in North Iceland, only a 10-minute drive from Akureyri. A visit to the Christmas Garden (Jólagarðurinn) will transport you right into the festive season. Here you will find countless items and traditions connected to the holidays worldwide. Of course, there is a focus on Icelandic Christmas customs. Such as hanging and smoking legs of lamb, making the delicate and decorative "leaf bread" in many patterns, and the Yule Lads and their parents, who live in Dimmuborgir, near Lake Mývatn in North Iceland. They all play a significant role in the Icelandic Christmas celebrations and oral traditions. Quality handmade crafts by Icelandic artisans deck the shelves, and plenty of sweets make The Christmas Garden appealing to the entire family.
Jóla-what? While the word may not roll off your tongue, for Icelanders, Jólabókaflóð roughly translates to "Christmas book avalanche" and has been a long-standing tradition since WWII. During the war, strict currency regulations limited the importation of goods, except, most interestingly, for foreign paper. With money in their wallets and plenty of paper, the conditions were set for the perfect avalanche.
Icelanders did not spend much money on books for themselves, but their generosity was boundless when gifting. Publishers caught on to this and marketed the latest hardcover books in a highly anticipated torrent of books from November through Christmas. Bookstores across Iceland resembled mini-concert venues, where authors of all genres would read aloud to packed crowds to promote their latest books—the holidays transformed into an extended literary celebration. To this day, after opening presents on the evening of December 24th, Icelanders will settle down, crack open their new books, and escape into a good story.
Laufabrauð translates as "leaf bread"—sometimes referred to as "snowflake bread"—and is a traditional Icelandic bread most often eaten during the holidays. Originally from North Iceland but now eaten throughout the country, these round and delicate flatbreads have a diameter of 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 inches) and are decorated with elaborate leaf-like patterns and fried briefly in hot fat or oil. Laufabrauð can be bought in bakeries or made at home, either with ready-made dough or from scratch. Many bakeries now sell ready-made Laufabrauð or pre-kneaded and cut dough that only needs decorating and frying. However, nothing beats homemade Laufabrauð.
Making the bread at home is usually a family undertaking and often a traditional part of Christmas preparations when several generations gather and take part. Together they cut patterns, either by hand or using a heavy brass roller called the laufabrauðsjárn, "leaf bread iron." The most common pattern consists of rows of V-like flaps; each flap overlaps with the next one to form a braid-like design. The rows create a larger intricate pattern, such as a snowflake or a letter. Bakers fry the dough in oil, each taking only a couple of seconds to fry to a golden crisp. Many familiesserveLaufabrauð with their traditional topping, for example, hangikjöt (smoked lamb0, ptarmigan, and even mysingur, a caramelized cheese spread made from whey.
(L to R) Jólabókaflóð is the "Christmas book avalanche" and publishers go wild (Photo: Styrmir Kári). Making Laufabrauð the old fashion way at Árbæjarsafn Museum (Photo: Gunnar Freyr, and Icelandic Yule Cat (Photo: Raggi TH).
5. Yule Cat
Jólakötturinn, or the Yule Cat, is an icon of Icelandic Christmas. This humongous cat is renowned and feared by people of all ages in Iceland. Legend has it that the Yule Cat eats those who don't receive new clothes—a soft gift—for Christmas. To avoid this horrible fate, you'd better do your chores to receive the bare minimum! Even socks will ward off the Yule Cat. Today, the Cat is often said to be the household pet of the equally terrifying giantess Grýla and her lazy husband Leppalúði, who are the parents of the Yule Lads. Whether all of this is true or not, no one knows. We can say that if we all help each other in the spirit of the season, the Yule Cat will go hungry.
A beloved poem about the Yule Cat by Johannes ur Kotlum describes the enormous cat's sharp teeth and glaring yellow eyes. The poem promotes working hard all year before Christmas to avoid the perils of the Yule Cat.
Listen to Björk sing the song in Icelandic.
6. Things to do around Reykjavík
Reykjavík is full of Christmas Creatures! While all the Christmas Creatures will be on view at the Reykjavík Art Museum - Hafnarhús, at City Hall, they will be in various places (look high and low) around the city from December 2nd throughout the holidays. The Christmas Creatures of Reykjavík is a unique project created in 2010 to honor Iceland's storytelling traditions by including Christmas Creatures in the city's decorations.
The intent is to promote Icelandic folklore and encourage people to learn more and share stories about these funny creatures while walking around. Please keep your eyes open for the thirteen Icelandic Yule Lads, both entertaining and boisterous troublemakers, their bad-tempered troll parents, Grýla and Leppalúði, and the terrifying Yule Cat are also lurking around the city.
Are you looking for a unique experience? Each year there is a pop-up skating rink in downtown Reykjavík at Ingólfstorg Square that is open from the end of November through January 1st. Open from 12 -10 PM with music, lights, refreshments, and plenty of fresh air. There are plenty of holiday activities in and around Reykjavik.
7. Baking away the days
"How many this year?" is a common question among Icelandic bakers during the advent. Of course, they refer to the variety of cookies they baked. It's the pride of every household to make as many as possible and preferably redo a few batches since they were too delicious.
Home baking has been a Christmas tradition since the early 1900s when ingredients became more readily accessible and household ovens available. Many families start baking early, nibbling on delightful baked goodies throughout December, while others keep a tight lid on them until Christmas. Many traditional recipes originate in the early 1900s, while others have exciting backstories, such as "bessastaðakökur" cookies. President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir (1980-1996) famously offered these delicious cookies to guests at Bessastaðir, the official residence of the President of Iceland. Although highly contentious, the most popular Christmas cookie in Iceland is lakkrístoppar (meringue cookies with a topping of licorice and chocolate). Here is a list of traditional Icelandic Christmas cookies and recipes!
1. Sörur: Baked in honor of famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Tough to eat just one of these chocolate-glazed buttercream macaroons.
2. Lakkrístoppar: Meringue cookies with a licorice topping.
3. Spesíur: Sugar cookie with a dollop of chocolate in the middle.
4. Hálfmánar: Means "half moon" in Icelandic and usually has jam filling.
5. Piparkökur: A holiday staple, a gingerbread cookie
6. Vanilluhringir: A classic vanilla ring cookie with many variations.
7. Bessastaðakökur: Cookies worthy of a president—eating or baking. Sugar cookie with sliced almonds and dusting Demerara sugar.
(L to R) A classic Icelandic soft gift is a handknit sweater (Photo: Gunnar Freyr), a selection of Icelandic Christmas cookies, and Grýla is no laughing matter (Photos: Eggert Jóhannesson)
8. Soft woolen gifts
As mentioned previously, the terrifying Yule Cat will eat those children who do not receive at least one soft gift in their shoe. So, you can imagine the relief children feel to see knitted socks or mittens in their shoes! Is this a well-played ploy from The Handknitting Association of Iceland? We might never know. But Iceland's tradition of giving "soft gifts" is still strong. Often these are beautiful hand-knit goods such as mittens, hats, socks, and sweaters made of Icelandic wool. Perfect holiday gifts for the Icelandic winter.
9. Steer clear of Grýla
Naughty or nice? In Iceland, you might want to keep off the naughty list. Otherwise, you may be troll food. First mentioned in a 13th-century compilation of Norse mythology and Prose Edda, Grýla is a giantess. The first mention of Grýla in connection with Christmas was in the 17th century as the Yule Lad's grim mother. The oldest poems about Grýla describe her as a beggar. She roamed around Iceland asking parents to give her their naughty children. Grýla can be thwarted by providing her with food or chasing her away. Initially, she lived in a cottage, but in later adaptations, she appears to have been forced out of town into a remote cave in the north.
These days Grýla detects children who are misbehaving year-round. She comes down from the mountains during Christmas to search nearby towns for her meal. She leaves her cave, hunts wicked children, and carries them home in a giant sack. Children are her favorite snack, although she is known to make a stew of naughty kids, for which she has an insatiable appetite. According to the legends, Grýla never goes hungry.
According to folklore, Grýla has been married three times. Her third husband, Leppalúði, is reportedly living lazily with her in their cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields, along with the big black Yule Cat and their sons—better known as the Yule Lads. Grýla supposedly had dozens of rarely talked about children with her previous husbands because she ate them.
Bruggsmiðjan in Árskógssandur, near Dalvik, in North Iceland, is a microbrewery with many seasonal beers. (Photo: Visit North Iceland)
10. Cheers to Christmas Beer
Remarkably, it was only in 1989 that Icelanders could legally buy beer. Since then, brewers—and beer drinkers—have been busy. The holiday season is a popular time to release limited edition Jólabjór or Christmas beers. Brewers tend to experiment with all kinds of flavors this time of year. There are now 33 brewers in Iceland, brewing 78 different seasonal beers available at Vínbúðin, the state-run liquor store.
11. Hangikjöt: the taste of Icelandic Christmas
No traditional Icelandic Christmas season is complete without the centerpiece, hangikjöt. Hangikjöt translates as "hung meat" in Icelandic and is a savory smoked lamb. The name and curing method originated during Iceland's settlement around 874 when meat was preserved by hanging and smoking. It can be served raw as an appetizer, either sliced or like tartare. Prepared raw hangikjöt is an Icelandic twist on meat preservation like prosciutto. Most of it is cooked and served with potatoes in bechamel sauce (Icelanders love vast quantities of sauces), canned green peas, pickled red cabbage—or beetroot, and the traditional Christmas bread, laufabrauð. 90% of Icelanders will feast on the delicacy during the holidays. It is delicious in a sandwich or open-face on Icelandic rye flatbread. The two main methods of smoking meat after curing are from birch wood or sheep dung. The latter is remarkably tasty and developed due to Iceland's lack of trees.
Check out our Icelandic Lamb for some old-school hangikjöt.
(L to R) Hangikjöt is an Icelandic staple during the holidays (Photo: Icelandic Lamb) Giving the skate a smell test before cooking (Photo: Golli / Kjartan Þorbjörnsson), and Malt & Appelsín are perfect for washing it all down. (Photo: Sverrir Vilhelmsson)
12. Holiday elixer: Malt & Appelsín
What is that strange, frothy-brown soda Icelanders drink at Christmas? Malt & Appelsín is a Christmas staple for washing down salty foods. It is a blend of two classic Icelandic soft drinks: Malt, a dark and malty-sweet soda, and Appelsín orange soda. The combination in Icelandic is called jólaöl, which translates as Christmas ale, although there is no alcohol involved.
Ölgerðin brewery, founded in 1913, produces both Malt and Appelsín sodas. Malt Extrakt soda was initially touted as a cure for stomach aches. Malt has been a popular complement to holiday meals for decades. In 1955, Ölgerðin released Appelsín orange soda, quickly becoming one of Iceland's most popular soft drinks. Families concoct their proprietary mixes of Malt & Appelsín at home with specific ratios of each soda. Ölgerðin now sells cans of a premixed Jólabland—Christmas mix for those on the run.
The origin story of blending Malt & Appelsín has been lost to time. That does not make it any less critical when celebrating during the darkest month of the year. One holiday tip from Ölgerðin: When mixing at home, the trick is to pour the Appelsin into a glass or jug first and then gently add the Malt. Otherwise, the foam from the malt tends to overflow.
Iceland abolished Catholicism in the year 1550. However, Icelanders still celebrate Saint Thorlákur on his Mass Day on December 23rd. Today, the Mass of Saint Thorlákur (or St. Thorlákur's Day) relates to Christmas preparation. A day to decorate the Christmas tree or rush to finish Christmas shopping.
It is also a day to eat the pungent-smelling fermented skate (a ray fish). Let's say you will smell it before you see it. Not everyone knows this is a remnant of Catholicism, a time of meat fasting until Christmas. Therefore, fish—preferably bad fish, was eaten the day before Christmas, before people feasted on meat. The tradition of eating skate is originally from the Westfjords region around the middle of the 20th Century. Still, it was mainly in the Westfjords and Breiðafjörður regions where fishermen caught skate. Skate was never considered a great delicacy, but since the autumnal fishing season closed around St. Thorlákur's Day, eating skate has been linked to this day, and many considered it a necessity to eat skate the day before Christmas.