Icelandic Christmas - How we celebrate

Jól is our word for Christmas - a season filled with lights and cheer. Jólin (conjugated) is a marriage of winter solstice and the birth of Jesus. The season kicks off with Advent, the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve when we light the first of the four candles that serve the countdown to Christmas. During this time we infuse the darker days with festive lights and more candles, and celebrate one another over gourmet meals and drinks. Art experiences are strongly included during this time as we flock to musical concerts, theatre and visual art showings.

Jólin, or Christmas, is celebrated over 13 days starting on December 24th, and until then we celebrate the countdown to Christmas, which is also represented by our 13 Santas. Icelandic Santas or Yule Lads start coming to town one at a time attending children’s Christmas dances and other festivities.

christmas tree decoration

Another odd little tradition we have is the shoe in the window, placed in the window of every child’s room - asking each Yule Lad to leave them a treat or toy by the morning. This time is also celebrated by the parents as they can use this as a bargain for their kids to behave well, to forgo getting a raw potato in the shoe. 

 If you thought the shoe in the window was a strange tradition, we have another odd trick up our sleeves. Approaching the big day, we honor St. Thorlak Mass on December 23rd and traditionally eat fermented skate for lunch. It’s an intensely foul smelling fish that tastes like shark and is prepared and enjoyed at restaurants and homes. Followed by the biggest shopping event of the year as retailers stay open until midnight and locals run around town, run into friends, sipping on warm mulled wine while picking up the last gift or two on the list. 

The spirit of the celebrated seasons runs deep in our veins and there’s a certain holiness that grows stronger as we get closer to Adfangadagur on December 24th. On this day at 6pm a wave of a vibrational aura passes through as church bells chime across the country alerting us that it’s officially Christmas. We deck our tables in our best linen and china and serve a traditional family meal, commonly ptarmigans or rack of ham followed by opening presents, which most definitely will include a book or three. This time of year is also the harvesting time for Icelandic publishing houses - releasing hundreds of new titles, commenced as Jólabókaflóð or the Christmas Book Flood. And everyone is dressed up to avoid getting attacked by the scary Christmas cat (because that can happen).

The christmas cat in Reykjavik

Jóladagur (Christmas Day) we spend with extended family playing games and catching up over smoked lamb, potatoes, peas and bechamel-like sauce. December 26th we continue the celebration as this is another holiday, simply called Second of Christmas. This day is social and festive, yet a little less holy than the 24th and 25th as alcoholic beverages aren’t frowned upon on this day.

Gamlársdagur meaning Old Year’s Day (New Year’s Eve) is highly anticipated and spent with family over a decked up gourmet meal and champagne, and an annual comedy show mocking cultural and current events of the year passing is broadcast before midnight. Every household stocks up on fireworks to ring in the new year, painting the sky with big bang sparkles, followed by partying well into the night, and for some into the morning, but others prefer to go to bed at a reasonable hour to begin the year fresh and open to positive changes.

Þrettándinn is the final day of the season, meaning the 13th day of Christmas, which falls on January 6th. On this day we say goodbye to the festivities for now and fire up what's left of the New Year's Eve fireworks. Locals build up a bonfire in their neighborhoods, known as elf bonfire, which they attend on that last evening of Jól singing folk songs with flaming torches.