Icelandic Christmas and New Year Traditions

19. December 2016 —

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 afterwardsa, 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).

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 candleabra holds 7 candles in a triangle shape. They are usually electric and placed on a windowsill. The first Sunday also marks the point at which the festivitie begin, and people begin to put up Christmas decorations.

Decorations and Daylight

Decorations: Christmas decorations are very important in Iceland, and everybody decorates. Lights in the windows, candles 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 also. Interestingly, the Christmas Tree itself 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 sun rise 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 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 form 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!

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 as well as themselves, wearing their best.

Cemetery Visit

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

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 Years, it borders on the absurd and it surely a spectacle to behold!

Merry Christmas! Gleðileg Jól!

The diversity of Christmas celebrations all around the world is quite remarkable, and Iceland’s tradition are no exception, baring 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

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.

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