Christmas comes during the darkest period of the year in Iceland (with roughly five hours of effective daylight), so the people take the holidays very seriously. Some even go far beyond with house decorations or even basic traditions.
The Icelandic word for Christmas is simply “Jól”, and is derived from the Norse word Youle. Interestingly, the word in Icelandic has nothing to do with either Christ or religion.
If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to celebrate the holidays on a small Nordic island, here are a few helpful (and amusing) facts that make Christmas traditions in Iceland stand out, in an odd but charming way.
You’ll never forget that pre-Christmas scent
So, you’ve most likely heard stories of our food, it’s wide variety and polarizing taste. An old Icelandic tradition on Þorláksmessa (December 23rd) is to eat skate, which is a certain type of fish. The skate is pickled and putrefied weeks before Christmas and you can only imagine the smell of ammonia that comes with it.
If people lose track of time, this smell is a great reminder that Christmas Eve is right around the corner.- and boy, does that smell get everywhere! Even mall-shoppers carry it with them everywhere, so there’s hard to get around it. Regardless, this dish is thought to be a delicacy by many Icelanders.
Also, this is the only time of the year that Icelanders enjoy this meal.
It’s writers season
Iceland has more working writers per capita than any other nation in the world, so it comes as no surprise that we sell more books (again, per capita) than anywhere else. Beginning in November, hundreds of books are released onto markets. The competition is crazy, but it also creates a demand for better material for a given author to stand out.
Yet, there’s just no denying that publishers and authors go on a sales rampage during the same time each year. If someone in Iceland doesn’t receive at least one book for Christmas, something may have gone wrong.
In their shoes
Christmas stockings are not as common in the Icelandic culture as one might think, although some people do like to include them. However, the more traditional approach is to place one’s shoe (that’s singular, not plural) in the window sill before going to bed, every night before Christmas starts, starting from December 11.
Sound odd? Well, there’s a reason for this.
More than a few, actually.
The Thirteen Santas
For our youngsters, there’s nothing like the thrill of getting up each morning, for almost two weeks, and finding something new in your shoe. You see, in Iceland, there is not one Santa Clause or a single Father Christmas. There are thirteen.
Originally, their traits are mostly rotten and mischievous, but through the years, they have become more in keeping with traditional Santas (in look and behavior)… except for being heavily multiplied.
So the local kids today are very lucky to have thirteen jolly visitors bringing all sorts of gifts, ranging from toys to fruits -usually clementines.
In the early years, these Santas used to appear in ragged clothing and were more in keeping with the Danish designs, but in the ‘1930s they started going for the more standard red and white color motif. The lads live in the Icelandic mountains with their parents, Grýla – their horse-legged, troll-decended, commanding and ill-tempered mother – and Leppalúði, the softer of the two but still considered to be feared by many children.
To make matters more bizarre, the Yuletide lads share a home with a hideous beast called “The Christmas Cat”, who’s purpose is to strike fear into kids who forget to wear a new item of clothing during Christmas Eve. It is still today debated by many if that fear means eating the kids’ holiday dinner or the kinds themselves.
The Santas have the most peculiar names.
(The names in English are based on Hallberg Hallmundsson’s translation, and they are as follows:)
1. Sheep-Cote Clod (Stekkjarstaur)
Harassing sheep is the first one’s main trait, but he is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.
2. Gully Gawk (Giljagaur)
Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.
3. Stubby (Stúfur)
Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.
4. Spoon-Licker (Þvörusleikir)
Steals wooden spoons with long handles (commonly in Iceland known as þvara) to lick.
5. Pot-Scraper (Pottaskefill)
Steals leftovers, from pots mostly.
6. Bowl-Licker (Askasleikir)
Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.
7. Door-Slammer (Hurðaskellir)
A fiesty one. Likes to slam doors, especially during the night, preferably in loud fashion.
8. Skyr-Gobbler (Skyrgámur)
A Yule Lad with an affinity for skyr.
9. Sausage Swiper (Bjúgnakrækir)
Would hide in the rafters and snatch sausages that were being smoked.
10. Window-Peeper (Gluggagægir)
A snoop who would look through windows in search of things to steal.
11. Doorway-Sniffer (Gáttaþefur)
Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread.
12. Meat-Hook (Ketkrókur)
Uses a hook to steal meat.
13. Candle Stealer (Kertasníkir)
A big lover of candles.
Breaking bread, of a different kind
Here’s something you don’t see everyday.
Well, except in Iceland, depending on the season. The inclusion of the leaf bread is a rock hard tradition over here. It’s a crisp flatbread, made from thin, waferlike dough and cut into these intricate geometric patterns, then deep fried and served at gatherings and Christmas parties.
If you’re having trouble saying “Laufabrauð”, we appreciate the effort, but the next logical step is to try one for yourself and bring in a certain kind of Nordic charm.