When they stop stacking the Rjómi (heavy cream) neatly on the supermarket shelves, you know Christmas is just around the corner. The Rjómi hasn’t disappeared though. Entering the walk-in cooler (don’t forget your jacket!) you’ll see a huge container spilling over with cartons and cartons of Rjómi. Frankly, stacking it is a waste of time; soon you’ll notice the mountain getting smaller as every single person takes at least one, maybe two or maybe five. Our consumer needs are this predictable before, during and after Christmas, because almost every single Icelandic household has the exact same family traditions. This uniformity creates an unparalleled Christmas mood that doesn’t occur anywhere else. It is the reason why, for many of us emigrated ones, the mere thought of being anywhere else for Christmas is simply unbearable.
“When are you coming home for Christmas?” is the question friends and family ask me, rather than, “Are you coming home for Christmas?” It’s that matter-of-fact; if you’re a native Icelander who has moved away to study or work, chances are you’ve been asked the same. I’ve been living in Canada for a few years now and have been lucky enough to make friends from all over the world. Those who culturally celebrate Christmas want to spend the holidays with their friends and family at home, naturally, but if they can’t, it’s not the end of the world. The opposite is true for most of my Icelandic friends; I think a part of it stems from family pressure. Some friends told me that their parents would not even discuss a non-return: “If I can’t make it home because of work, I think my dad will attempt to stuff the roast, the tree and the gifts on a plane and bring Icelandic Christmas to me,” a friend once remarked.
It gets intense
Spending quality time over the holidays surrounded by family is a universal practice, but we Icelanders take it one step further. You would have to look far and wide to witness such a mass of family gatherings that happen before, during, around and after Christmas. Unfortunately (fortunately?), this might be the only time of the year you get to see your distant relatives while devouring all those cartons of Rjómi on the side of cakes and cookies galore. These Christmas feasts (we call them “Jólaboð”), alongside endless work- or friend-related gatherings, create an air of festivity that starts long before Christmas and lingers. Between feasts, we flock to Christmas concerts, concentrating the festive air even further. The city I now inhabit, with a population eight times that of Iceland, does not have this many Christmas-related concerts to choose from.
Travelling from a multicultural city where over half the people don’t even celebrate Christmas, to Iceland, where some don’t even realize that Christmas is not a universal phenomenon, is intense. The airplane ride prepares me a little bit as I’m offered Piparkökur (our take on gingerbread cookies) and Jólaöl (“Christmas Ale”), a delicious blend of orange soda and malt ale. The holiday feeling gradually intensifies as I sip on my third glass and take in the inevitable Christmas music that will envelop me in the next weeks. As soon as I enter the city, I notice the traffic is a little heavier, the people a little quicker on their feet, and I overhear bits and pieces of conversation: “How many gifts are left to buy? Going to any concerts? Are you all ready for Christmas?” That bit of tingly, are-you-ready stress comes with the territory and tightens the Christmas grip around you.
For such a small nation, our unique traditions are pretty impressive: we have our own special Christmas bread (Laufabrauð), smoked lamb, a soft drink, traditional cookies and cakes, and not to mention our wondrous out-of-this-world mayonnaise bread bombs. We also have a December 23rd tradition, as well as thirteen scary Santa Clauses (we call them Jólasveinar—that’s usually translated as “Yule Lads”), advent-specific traditions and, of course, Christmas Eve, the holiest and most traditional of them all. On December 24, hot water usage spikes to unprecedented highs at around 4pm, as the nation bathes. At 6pm, Christmas starts in every home. When I explain our traditions to non-Icelanders, this is usually where they laugh: “What do you mean, Christmas starts?” I reply: “It does! We have church bells and everything, and a person on the radio tells us that it’s time.”
The Christmas bubble that Icelanders create every year is nothing short of magical. It can’t be bottled and it can’t be replicated anywhere else. So is it any wonder that we runaways do absolutely everything in our power to make it “home’”? After all, who refuses a big slice of Icelandic Christmas with Rjómi on the side?
Guðrún Jónsdóttir freelances from Vancouver, Canada. Everyone who comes to visit must bring Skyr, Icelandic ice cream and Kúlusúkk. See more of her at gudrunj.com.