Even though most Western nations are by all accounts becoming more mind-numbingly culturally uniform by the minute, there are still some vast regional differences as to how we go about living our lives and the various customs and traditions that entails. Take Christmas. Most Christian countries (and some non-Christian ones as well) have their own special version of the festivities that December brings, even though themes of celebration, charity, love towards mankind and consumerism are widespread. Iceland is no different in this respect and has many unique Christmas customs and ceremonies. The following is an attempt to give outsiders some insight into how the average Icelander will experience and celebrate the holidays in light of traditional folklore and long standing customs, as well as some new ones.
The presents themselves and the various traditions surrounding them vary between households, although there are some constants. Books have for long ranked as the most popular gift-items; the publishing industry and book stores virtually revolve around the holiday season—the months leading up to it see the majority of the year’s releases being published and bought.
The gift of music is also a popular one, especially in post-Kreppa times. Beside cultural products, other popular gift items include decorative objects, board games, electronic equipment and the like.
Calling all shoppers!
It should come as no surprise that each year the first signs of the impending holidays stem from Iceland’s advertising agencies; as early as October one may witness Santa or one of his minions running amok in the media, reminding shoppers that the Christmas season has indeed arrived and it is time to stock up on gifts and pleasantries. Soon after, the larger stores will start decorating, giving nods to the festivities with the use of Christmas trees, blinking light sets and inflatable Santas.
However, most of the shopping occurs in the month of December itself, culminating on December 23—known here as Þorláksmessa—when the stores stay open ‘til late and midtown Reykjavík along with the shopping malls experience their most crowded day of the year. The large mass of people that congregate downtown to do some last minute shopping and drink cups of cocoa is truly a sight to behold and is for some one of the season’s high points.
Deck the halls
Icelanders usually give their homes the holiday treatment in late November/early December, with the start of Advent (which occurs the fourth Sunday before Christmas) usually marking the official ‘OK time’ for decorating. Decorations are similar to what may be found in the rest of the Christmas-celebrating world: pine branches, light sets, Santa-related effigies and various knick-knacks and doodads. A four-candle Advent wreath, with one candle to be lit on each Advent Sunday to mark its passing, may be found in most homes, as may so-called Christmas-calendars, boxes of chocolates to be dispensed every day leading up to December 24.
A decorative object somewhat unique to Iceland, although the phenomenon may be found in some Nordic countries, is the Advent light, a seven-armed electric candlestick found in at least one window of almost every Icelandic house throughout the holiday season. It is reportedly quite common for those who visit Reykjavík in December to get in touch with the National Museum and inquire about the object, and whether Judaism is widespread in the country.
The story behind the Advent lights’ popularity in Iceland is surprisingly mundane. It is generally thought of as any other decoration, even though the seven-armed candlestick is laden with symbolism elsewhere. The story goes that a certain Reykjavík businessman encountered the object on a standard shopping trip to Sweden sometime in the mid-sixties. He thought they’d make excellent gifts to his aunts back home and bought several for that purpose. Word of mouth popularity ensued, and soon the businessman was importing boatloads of the decorative lights, as no respectable Icelandic home could bear to be without them.
A pretty horrible family
Iceland has some strange and violent folklore connected to the month of Advent, and Christmas in particular, although later years have seen some of its harsher tales considerably revised into being more “child-friendly”. As with most Western nations, Christmas in Iceland involves several mythical creatures dating back to the middle ages, but what may set ours apart is their bleak nature and often-scary undertones.
In folk tales, Christmas Eve is a dangerous night that should be approached with extreme caution. It is the time when every supernatural creature in Iceland’s collective consciousness comes out to play, often luring innocent peasants to their dens, killing them or trapping them eternally. For instance, elves will tempt with their riches and beauty, trapping whoever falls for their shtick into an eternity of living inside rocks, or worse. And those who dare play cards or games of any nature on Christmas Eve may expect horrible things—a famous folk tale speaks of a Church that was engulfed into the earth by Satan himself after its patrons partook in a midnight game of cards.
And then there are the gift-bringers: the Jólasveinar (or Yuletide Lads), a motley group of bogeymen descended from trolls. Originally used to scare children into submission, it is only in later years that they have warmed to the task of bringing them presents instead of harassing their families with pranks. Little is known of the Jólasveinars’ origins, but they do get mentioned in writing as early as the 17th century. Their number and habits varied from region to region (the East Fjords even had some that lived at sea as opposed to on mountains), and there are as many as 80 recorded names for them. Jón Árnason, Iceland’s answer to the Brothers Grimm, published their names in his widely read folklore collection in 1862 and thus contributed to a still remaining consensus that there are exactly thirteen active Jólasveinar.
The Jólasveinar have come a long way since their salad days of terrifying young kids. As the centuries passed, they have taken a shine to the little ones and sometime around 1960 they found a purpose in leaving small gifts in kids’ shoes left on window sills (although there are reports of this behaviour as early as 1930). The first one, Stekkjarstaur (Gully Oaf) comes to town on the eve of December 12. They keep on coming leading up to December 24, when the infamous Kertasníkir (Candle Beggar – he usually leaves the greatest presents) makes his arrival. Some interesting ones that show up in the interim include Þvörusleikir (Spoon-licker), Hurðaskellir (Door-slammer) and Gluggagægir (Peeping Tom). Their gifts range from small toys and Christmas decorations to books and CDs (that would be Kertasníkir), but if a child has behaved foully, it will most likely get a potato.
As mentioned earlier, the Jólasveinar are descended from common trolls. In fact, they come from a pretty horrid family. Their mother is the most infamous Icelandic troll of all—the deadly Grýla. She is mainly known for taking great pleasure in devouring naughty children, sometimes cooked, often raw, and it is believed that her sons’ original purpose was to bring her fresh meat when the hunger struck. Not as devious but still pretty mean is Grýla’s husband, Leppalúði, who partakes in all the nastiness but is a more passive figure.
The most vicious and weird family member is in all likelihood the deceivingly named Jólaköttur (Christmas Cat). This feline is said to be of gargantuan proportions, and he has the sole purpose of eating disadvantaged children. Not necessarily naughty ones, which would, in a way, be understandable; rather, the Christmas Cat chooses to feast on kids who fail to score new articles of clothing for Christmas. Luckily, Iceland’s trusty welfare system has ensured that he rarely finds motive to visit these days.
Food plays a large part in Icelandic Christmas festivities and there are several local culinary traditions to be honoured. The fun starts in early December, when families congregate to bake several types of Christmas-cookies to be eaten over the course of the coming month. An average household will usually produce around three to ten different sorts of cookies, although later years have seen an increase in the circulation of store-bought ones. More productive households will also bake and freeze layer cakes and raisin-laced Christmas cakes.
From the northern parts of Iceland comes the December tradition of baking Laufabrauð (Leaf-bread), a very thin, deep-fried sort of bread that has decorations carved in it and goes well with butter. Another regional tradition that has in later years spread throughout Iceland is the annual devouring of kæst skata (rotted skate) on Þorláksmessa (December 23). Originating in the Westfjords, the skate-feast generally takes place at noon. The skate has at this point been rotting by itself at room temperature for about three weeks, giving it a harsh and cleansing taste. By most accounts, cooking skate will really stink up a house, although many profess a great love for the dish and its accompanying tallow, cooked rye bread and whole milk. Certainly an acquired taste, but one that’s worth exploring.
There aren’t many specifically Icelandic Christmas-style drinks to speak of. The Scandinavian custom of gathering to drink Jólaglögg (Christmas-drops) in the weekends leading up to Christmas is often practiced, although its popularity has waned somewhat in recent years. Jólaglögg is a sickly sweet sort of drink that’s usually made by heating red wine spiced with cinnamon, ginger, raisins and lemon peel—some will add spirits for added bite.
Alcohol consumption around Christmas itself is less popular than one would assume from Icelanders’ usual drinking habits—folks would rather stay warm with a cup of hot chocolate or a combination of alcohol-free Malt ale (Maltöl) and Icelandic orange soda (Appelsín). Combined, the two drinks form what’s commonly referred to as Jólaöl (Christmas ale). The blending of the two has been common practice in Iceland since around 1960 and most families have their own special ways of determining the correct proportions between them (some even add cola to the mix).
(Nothing to fear but) Christmas itself
The first thing you should know about the actual celebrating of Christmas in Iceland is that it culminates on December 24 rather than the 25th, which is the common Western date to celebrate the birth of Christ. This is in keeping with the original Christian chronology, taken up from Judaism, which deems that a new day starts at sunset, or six PM outside of the original Jewish areas. Thus it is deemed that Christmas day starts at six PM in Iceland, signalled in by National Radio’s broadcasting of church bells. This is followed by a traditionally extravagant Christmas meal, often comprised of smoked pork or wild game such as ptarmigan or reindeer. Large families like to gather for this occasion and there will often be as many as twenty people dining at the same table. Many families conclude the meal by eating a Christmas porridge in which an almond has been hidden—whoever gets the almond wins a fun prize.
Leading up to this is an always-unbearable wait (if you’re a kid, anyway). While parents spend the day putting last-minute touches on decorations, preparing meals and wrapping up presents, children will watch some of the local TV stations’ all-day broadcasts of Christmas-themed cartoons. Many will suffer uncontrollable sugar-induced temper tantrums throughout the day.
What they are looking forward to is of course the much-coveted opening of presents, an activity that reigns supreme over the rest of the evening. A family member will often take the task upon himself of fetching the presents from under the Christmas tree and distributing them according to their tags. This can go on for hours in large families, and it’s usually not until well after midnight that people make their way to bed, often reading newly acquired books well into the small hours of Christmas Day.