Icelandic Christmas and New Year Traditions

Fire works going off over Reykjavík on New Years Eve

First Things First: When is Christmas?

Christmas is celebrated on December 24th, with a late afternoon/evening meal, usually around 18:00. Some people go to church and eat afterwards, but this is uncommon.

A Gift in a Shoe

Forget about stockings by the fire; in Iceland, people (especially children) put shoes on the windowsill, and depending on whether they have been naughty or nice, each day of the 13 days leading up to Christmas, one of Iceland’s 13 rather strange Yule Lads will drop by and leave a little something in the shoe, hopefully some sweets or a small gift (nice), and hopefully not a potato (naughty).

The thirteen Icelandic yule lads set up as a football team after a game of football

A Clear Starting Date

Have you ever been to a very busy and perhaps very commercialised city and found that (or at least got the impression that) Christmas just seems to arrive earlier and earlier, November to October, after some years?

The first Sunday of December marks the beginning of Advent. On this day, many Icelanders will light a single candle on a special advent candelabra of 4, known as an Advent Wreath, for each following Sunday. Another popular candelabra holds seven candles in a triangle shape. They are usually electric and placed on a windowsill. The first Sunday also marks the point at which the festivities begin, and people begin to put up Christmas decorations.

Decorations and Daylight

Decorations: Christmas decorations are essential in Iceland, and everybody decorates. Lights were in the windows; candles were in the home. There is a strong emphasis on light, and decorations are taken down, and normal activities are resumed on January 6th, as is customary in other countries. Interestingly, the Christmas Tree is not decorated until December 23rd, the day before Christmas. It is left decorated for 13 days until January 6th

Much of the emphasis on light stems from the darkness of December and the small amount of daylight. December 24th will see the sunrise at 11:22 and set at 15:32, giving a total daylight period of 4h 9m and 18s. We use the term “daylight” generously since the solar noon will see the sun only rise 2.5 degrees off of the horizon.

Decorated Leaf Bread

An important tradition in which many families in Iceland engage is the making and decoration of Laufabraud. Laufabraud is a thin, unleavened wafer made principally from wheat flour and butter and/or mutton fat. Families get together and cut shapes and patterns, which can sometimes get fantastically intricate. They begin to look like leaves, hence the name. Some of the prettiest ones are made into Christmas decorations in themselves!

Want to make some? Here is a recipe!

Icelandic Christmas bread bread set on a table with candles in the background

The Christmas Meal

The Christmas meal is the most important meal and event of the year, and families in Iceland go all out here, on food and themselves, wearing their best.

Cemetery Visit

One very interesting Icelandic Christmas tradition is that Icelandic families gather to remember deceased loved ones, visiting their graves and laying candles beside them every year. It’s a beautiful Icelandic cemetery at this time of year: blue shadows, pitch darkness, and golden candles light on many of the graves. If you get a chance, visit Hólavallagarður, the old cemetery not far from the centre of town.

Cemetery during Christmas decorated with candles.

Fireworks, Fireworks and more Fireworks!

If you thought there were a lot of fireworks on the 4th of July in the United States or on November 5th on Guy Fawkes night in the UK, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! You won’t even believe the quantity of fireworks going off in Reykjavik on New Year; it borders on the absurd and it is surely a spectacle to behold!

Bonfire on New Years Eve with fireworks and people watching

Merry Christmas! Gleðileg Jól!

The diversity of Christmas celebrations worldwide is quite remarkable, and Iceland’s traditions are no exception, being the hallmark of their history and culture. If you don’t make it down for Christmas, come and see what it’s all about and grab a winter tour while you are at it. From all of us here at Icelandic Mountain Guides, Gleðileg Jòl! og Gleðilegt ár (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

About the Author

Joseph Mattos-Hall

Joseph Mattos-Hall

Hailing from London and born into a British/Brazilian/Italian household, Joseph came to Iceland originally to complete a master’s degree in Environment and Natural Resources from the University of Iceland: the rest is history.

Reader’s Comments