Last month, I gave a talk about an Icelandic Christmas at our church’s “Christmas Around the World” event and thought to share one more post about a country I really enjoyed visiting!
Iceland is really pronounced, (deeper 1st syllable) “EEs-land.” (All the pronunciations in this article are my clumsy attempts to say it as well as I can after listening to the phonetics online.)
It’s a beautiful country! Europe’s largest glacier shares the island with many bubbling hot springs and spouting “GAY-sirs”, where the word geyser was born. It has active volcanoes, like the one no broadcaster can pronounce. You have a choice of where to sink in and relax in the many spectacular geothermal hot pools around the island. The island’s cold running water comes straight from natural springs; hot running water is from the thermal springs, but don’t drink it!
Many movies and TV shows have been shot here. Iceland is the only place in the world that you can actually see the collision of BOTH the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates! Iceland’s Thingvellir (THING-vet-lish) National Park is the UNESCO World Heritage site of one of the world’s earliest and longest running parliaments, starting from 930 AD!
When Iceland was settled in the 800s, most residents were pagan, worshipping Norse gods. Their language is almost unchanged from ancient Norse! Before Christianity was introduced, winter solstice celebrations were extravagant events.
When Olaf Tryggvason, a Christian, ascended the throne of Norway in the late 900s, more people in Iceland became Christians. So much so that strong religious differences between the pagans and the Christians stirred up the beginnings of a civil war.
So, in the year 1000, after a meeting of all of Iceland’s leaders, the country’s official religion was declared to be Christianity. Christmas is called, “Yule” or “jYu ol” (“Jol”) in Icelandic. It is not a reference to Christ or the church. It’s a Norse word and existed in Old English as Yule. So, Christmas in Iceland is a mix of Christianity and old Norse traditions with two celebrations – celebrating the birth of Christ and the beginning of the lengthening daylight hours.
Christmas is a serious event. People start decorating as early as October to brighten the increasingly longer nights. They have Christmas markets, even one by an ice skating rink, concerts and Christmas buffets filled with delicious Icelandic Christmas foods!
The whole house is cleaned, everyone gets something new to wear, the best food is purchased, the house is decorated and HUNDREDS of cookies are baked!
Yule time “officially” lasts 13 days, from December 24 to January 6, when all Christmas decorations are removed from the streets. Christ’s birth is celebrated on December 25th and the Three Wise Men are celebrated on January 6th.
Beginning 13 days BEFORE Christmas, the first of 13 Yule Lads comes down from the mountains. Old folklore says that they were the sons of trolls and each day a different boy would come down to cause trouble. These days, they’re “good” lads that look more like skinny Santa Clauses. Each child puts their best shoe on the windowsill. The lads pass by. If a child was good, a small present like candy, a book or a toy is left. If a child was bad, a rotten potato is left in the shoe!
Another strange, yet popular, tale says that EVERY Icelander MUST receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas. If not, the Yule Lads’ HUGE black cat, known as the Christmas Cat, will wander around the island on Christmas Eve and EAT those who don’t have new clothes!
A much more inviting image than that of a human-eating cat is of a child happily reading a brand new book in a cozy bed. Did you know that 93% of Icelanders will have read at least one book each year? And, one islander in ten will publish a book in their lifetime – fascinating!
The annual Jólabókaflóð, or “Yule Book Flood,” is a Christmas tradition that had it’s beginning in World War II. At that time, foreign imports were limited, but paper was plentiful. Nowadays, publishers release a flood of new books right before Christmas and people go bananas! What a beautiful way to spend a quiet Christmas evening, settling down with a good book.
On December 23rd, three things occur:
1) December 23rd was once a religious day. That’s when Saint Thorlac (Tour-r-r Lack), the patron saint of Iceland, died. Now, it’s traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year and has become the “last-minute-shopping-like-crazy” day! Icelanders spend the evening in the city, and shops and cafes stay open late.
2) In (R-r-rAY-gya-veek) Reykjavik, the country’s capital, the annual peace walk goes down the main shopping street with marchers carrying torches. It’s a pretty amazing sight!
3) And, December 23rd is when many families make and eat skata (SKAH-ta). It’s a dish made from a member of the shark family that looks more like a stingray. Much like Asia’s stinky tofu and durian, it has an OVERWHELMINGLY foul odor. Skata smells like something is rotting, although it’s only fermented. This is usually the only day it’s eaten ALL year because the disgusting smell is so strong that if you’ve been cooking or eating a lot of it, it gets into your clothes and stays with you!
Cemeteries are often decorated with Christmas lights! The Christmas, or Yule tree, is usually decorated early Christmas Eve. Originally, decorations included candles, fruit and popcorn or cranberry garlands. Nowadays, a star or crown will top the tree, and the Icelandic Flag is often used as a decoration, along with garlands, lights and more decorations.
A popular Christmas side dish is laufabraud (LAY va bredt) meaning leaf bread, which are wafer-thin rounds of wheat dough cut into delicate patterns and quick fried. (The bread goes back at least to the 1700s.) Early December, the whole family, even the men, get together to make the bread so that it can be enjoyed with the Christmas meal. Nowhere else in the world does anyone make such unique “breads.”
A simple Christmas meal also includes lamb, often smoked, red cabbage and boiled potatoes. The Christmas cake, jolakaka, has raisins in it.
Another unusual tradition is that on Christmas Eve, at 6pm, Christmas Day starts!
After dinner, presents are taken from under the Christmas tree and opened. Some will leave their cozy warm houses to go to church. It is like a typical American family holiday. People eat at home, play board games and snuggle under blankets watching Christmas movies. Christmas Day, December 25th, people visit family. The day after, Boxing Day, involves going to MORE family gatherings.
Years ago, TVs would be turned off on Christmas between 5p and 10pm, to focus on Christmas activities, but that’s no longer the case. Still, there’s no public dancing or entertainment on the 24th and 25th. It’s family time. This is Iceland’s longest holiday – everything is closed from noon on Christmas Eve until December 27!
The Aurora Borealis often appears during this time. And if you want a White Christmas in Iceland, you’ll do well to head to Northern Iceland.
On a side note, some of my Sunday school classmates made four Icelandic Christmas cookies: Silver Coins (Spesiur); Rice Krispies Muffins; Chocolate-Cornflake (Marens-Kornflexkokur; Soft Chocolate Pikes. The overwhelming favorite was the Marens-Kornflexkokur cookies from the saveur.com recipe.
These are the sources I can remember: wikipedia; whychristmas.com; saveur.com; guidetoiceland.is; iceland.is; icelandunlimited.is; icelandtravel.is; readitforward.com