“No licking your knife, or using the fork to retrieve the meat from your teeth. I’ve seen everything, I’m sure you can imagine,” says Margrét Sigfúsdóttir, principal of the home economics school Hússtjórnarskólinn í Reykjavík for the last 14 years.
Okay, so you’re probably civilised enough to know that one already—unless you were raised by Vikings, in which case forks were probably bypassed altogether.
Here’s Margrét’s guide to getting through your first Icelandic Christmas dinner without embarrassing yourself at the table and becoming the second helping of your new Icelandic girlfriend’s extended family!
• Traditionally, the seating arrangement will be such that the same gender is not seated next to one another. So it’s man, woman, man, woman etc. “To make things more interesting,” Margrét explains.
• The eldest at the table is always the first to be served. Your parents should always be served before you, then the guests, and yourselves last. Margrét can’t stress this enough. “I always hate it when you’re eating a buffet and they say ‘dinner’s on the table, come and get your food,’ and parents let young kids go first. And the kids run up and grab things,” Margrét says, shaking her head. “People do not have a grip on their kids these days.”
• Keep conversation light. “Just talk about nice things,” Margrét advises. “Don’t talk about politics, just talk about surface issues, nothing too serious.” Perhaps not the best time to announce to all that you have an infected toe. Basically, nothing that may put your grandma at risk of bringing her pudding back up.
• Play soft dinner music. “Not loud rock’n’roll,” Margrét tells me. Nothing your unemployed uncle Leifur can play air guitar to. It’s a family time and people have to be able to talk together.
• Never place high decorations on the table. No one can pull your Christmas cracker if they can’t see where it is.
• Festivities start promptly at 18:00. All attendants should be dressed, showered and ready to get festive. Many will then sit down to dinner, others will go to church. Point being, chefs especially, get yourself sorted by then, or else.
• Icelanders dress up for Christmas. It is a formal, special occasion, and you should dress accordingly. Collared shirts and ties for men, dinner dresses for women. Furthermore, everybody has to wear something new for Christmas. “It can be socks or just underwear, or the whole thing if you want, just something,” Margrét says. “Otherwise, legend has it the ‘jólaköttur,’ or “Christmas Cat,” will come down from the mountains and eat any naughty kids who don’t get something new for Christmas,” she says with a menacing laugh. “So I make sure I get some socks or just something from my husband each year, just to keep the cat at bay.”