From Iceland — Wow! Quirky Things Iceland Does Over Christmas

Wow! Quirky Things Iceland Does Over Christmas

Published December 23, 2020

Wow! Quirky Things Iceland Does Over Christmas
Valur Grettisson
Photo by
Art Bicnick & John Rogers

Although Icelandic Christmas traditions are often very similar to others in the western world, there are still some differences, quirks and oddities here and there. Many go back to our early Pagan society, but really that’s for your interpretation! We think all of them come from our love of the holidays.

Christmas Iceland

Christmas in Iceland. Photo by Art Bicnick.

We start celebrating early

In Iceland, as opposed to countries like America, we start celebrating Christmas on the evening of 24th instead of the morning of the 25th. In fact, the evening of Christmas Eve is the holiest moment for Icelanders when it comes to the celebration of the birth of Christ (although JC wasn’t actually born until the 25th according to the Catholic church.) If you go into any Icelandic household at this time, you will find everyone at their seats with a feast on their table ready to be eaten precisely at 18:00. The radio will be on blasting church bells—another tradition—and after dinner, the whole of Iceland gathers around their Christmas trees to open their gifts.

But why on the 24th of December rather than the 25th? Well, Icelanders used to follow the ancient Jewish calendar, which states that the new day actually begins at sundown. But, of course, winter is the darkest time in Iceland, so this is quite inconvenient for us as the sun sets around 15:30 in December. Therefore the 25th of December was determined to begin at 18:00—c’mon we can’t just change days in the afternoon—so Christmas in Iceland officially begins then. We call this time ‘miðaftan’. I know it sounds like cheating, but it’s just Islanders trying to organise their days using some ancient calculation.

Hangikjöt, served according to tradition

Hangikjöt. Photo from the Grapevine archives.

We eat salty and smoked meat

The first thing to note here is that meat is a dominating part of traditional Christmas food in Iceland and has been for around a century at least. By far, the most popular Christmas food on the night of the 24th of December is glazed ham. Meanwhile, on the 25th, we eat traditional Icelandic smoked lamb, which is called Hangikjöt. For contrarians, turkey and rock ptarmigan are sometimes on the menu, but really, few bother with the hassle of finding ptarmigan in grocery stores. Basically if you don’t have a rifle and a permit to shoot one, you’re not getting any.

For Christmas in Iceland, follow this rule: The saltier this stuff is, the more we like it. But there is a catch, of course—salt is not healthy for you. Who would have thought? This means that the busiest people over the holidays are the ones that drive ambulances, for this kind of food raises your blood pressure and causes so much swelling in your face that you look like you’ve been beaten. But it’s worth it for that salty goodness, right?

Maybe. But historically, the reason we opt for salted meat is that Iceland had scarce resources back in the day and salting meat stored it the best. Therefore, tradition came out of it.

Photo by Art Bicnick.

We visit the dead on the 24th of December

On the 24th, it’s traditional for Icelanders to visit graveyards and light a candle on the graves of lost loved ones. In fact, this is so fundamental to Christmas in Iceland that traffic around graveyards skyrockets on Christmas Eve and the police have to control the mess. To be honest, we are not sure how this became a tradition, but Icelanders have always been quite diligent when it comes to upkeep the graves of their loved ones.

Photo by John Rogers.

We love to read

You’ve probably heard this one, but Icelanders love to read over Christmas. In fact, everybody gets at least one book as a gift during the holidays. We are not quite sure why or when this became a thing, but a part of it is definitely due to the fact that Icelanders didn’t import a lot of stuff for decades. For example, there was a long time that you could only get fruit, like apples and oranges, on Christmas. And this wasn’t ages ago, this is something that people born before the 70s know well. But while we didn’t have fruit, for some reason, we had a lot of printers in Iceland, so everybody that wrote a book could more or less get it printed. And not only that, a lot of those books were hardcover, which made them an excellent gift. Publishers caught on early and now the most dominant advertisements you can see before Christmas are about new books.

On the Twelfth day, cows can talk

Ok, one day in the Dark Ages, Catholics decided that Jesus Christ was born on the 25th of December rather than the 6th of January (which is what everyone used to think.) Note that there is no mention of Jesus’s date of birth in the Bible. So on that day, the Church tried to eradicate the old day of Christmas completely.

Iceland followed suit in 1700, but they were not fond of it and in fact, thought it was just flat out confusing. But, perhaps because of this confusion, we mixed this day up with a lot of old folklore. For example, apparently on the 6th of January, cows can talk, but if you hear it, you will literally go mad. This comes from a famous story from the Folktales written by Jón Árnason. January 6th is also the night elves move between elf palaces and humans light bonfires, which we literally call Elfburnings (álfabrennur). Of course, we are not actually burning elves!

Some call this bonfire ‘álfadans’ or the dance of the elves, but this celebration is basically as pagan as you can get. You sit around the bonfire, sing old folksongs and shoot up more fireworks. The oldest mention of these bonfires is from the early 1700s and to be frank, they probably have no other purpose than to meet up at a warm place.

This night is in many ways magical. For example, if you sit at crossroads that same night, the lore says that elves will offer you gold and fortune, but there is a catch—you can’t accept anything. If you do, well, you will go mad. But if you’re lucky, they will tell you about your fate.

On another note, seals also become human this night. We won’t elaborate but yeah, Iceland wet nuts fusing together Christmas and paganism.

And a quick warning: There are trolls around, so don’t just wander into the night unprepared. Not that we know exactly how you prepare for a troll attack.

But there you have it. There are, of course, plenty more quirks, but these are our favourites. 

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