A visit to the Jólagarður
This fall, while planning my first trip up North, I messaged a friend of mine who had gone to secondary school in Akureyri and asked him for a few choice recommendations. “The Christmas Garden,” he wrote back almost immediately. “Smells delish. Sounds like winter. Has a scary Grýla… It’s all you could wish for.”
Despite the fact that it was late August and that traditionally, I’m more of a costumes-and-pumpkins kind of gal, I was definitely sold by this description. For one, I’ve become much more enthusiastic about Christmas since I moved to Iceland. Because Christmas in Iceland is awesome. I love the special treats—everything from the orange soda and malt jólabland (“Christmas blend”) and spiced seasonal beers to the smoked lamb and (imported) clementines. I love the cheesy tunes—many borrowed from Italian pop songs—with their Casio keyboard Calypso chorus lines. And I love the creepy, downright Halloweenish aspects of Christmas in Iceland: the cat that’ll eat you if you aren’t wearing new clothes, the nightly-arriving house creepers (the more recently Disneyfied Yule Lads) that slam your doors and steal your leftovers, and their mom, Grýla, the old witchy hag who sweeps into town to gather up misbehaving tots for her soup pot. So yes, Christmas is a weird and wonderful time here, and I could totally see the appeal of doing it year-round.
Surrounded by pine trees and situated on one side of a small, babbling stream, all that can be seen of Jólagarðurinn (“the Christmas Garden”) on first approach is a red roof dotted with giant replicas of Icelandic liquorice candies and candy canes, and a somewhat incongruous castle turret. Crossing the stream, the Christmas cottage comes into full view, as does the green fence upon which giant wooden circles that look like Icelandic laufabrauð (“leaf bread”) have been affixed.
In the summer and early fall, picnic tables sit out front so that visitors—such as the Icelandic family whose children leapt out of the car next to us and whooped their way to the door—can enjoy a picnic lunch on a dry day. Giant Santa boots serve as flowerpots, wooden icicles hang from the eaves, and a painted sign announces how many days remain until Christmas (the wooden countdown numbers, I might add, are each screwed in, and must be rather time-consuming to adjust on a daily basis. I arrived 122 days before Christmas, although the sign had not been updated—a fact which a more attentive guest than I pointed out to the proprietor upon entering the shop).
Giant calendar, tiny church
The candy-covered Christmas cottage at the heart of the garden is the first and oldest of the Jólagarðurinn buildings. It’s an expanded version of the original house, which was 35 square metres and was opened to much local fanfare by the owners—former chef and carpenter Benedikt Ingi Grétarsson, and his wife, Ragnheiður Hreiðarsdóttir—in May 1996. The garden has since expanded to include what is claimed to be the World’s Largest Advent Calendar (housed in the castle turret, naturally), an adjoining shop with seasonal goodies and handcrafts (mostly from Denmark and Sweden, as far as I could tell), and, tucked to one side, the entirely unexpected Wishing Well for Unborn Children, next to which stands a rather lifelike wool sculpture of two rather pendulous breasts.
But while you can spend a fair amount of time peeking into the tiny elf church in the backyard or flipping up the wooden flaps of the advent calendar, your time would be better, and more deliciously, spent lingering in the Christmas cottage proper. Upstairs, amidst the overflowing paper sacks of salt water taffy and the hand-carved Yule Lad statues and ornaments, you’re likely to find Benedikt Ingi wrapping packages or cutting a sample of hangikjöt from the smoked leg of lamb that hangs just above the cash register before giving it to guests on a piece of freshly made laufabrauð. “Icelandic people smell this and they think Christmas,” he told me as I munched my own delicious slice. “But we also try to be different, to have sweets from other countries,” he explained, pointing at the taffy, as well as jars of multi-coloured and multi-flavoured candy canes.
This idea of doing Christmas a little “differently,” or perhaps to give Icelanders a taste of Christmas traditions in other countries, comes fully alive downstairs, where golden trees are hung heavy with glittery glass ornaments, baskets filled with nutcracker dolls, and the iconic jolly bearded Santa is clearly the hero. But Icelandic traditions aren’t entirely pushed aside here—in a back corner, peeking out from a crevice in a stone wall hung with candles and a reindeer bust, is a rather menacing Grýla figure. Benedikt laughed a little at this. “Sometimes we hear a scream from down here.”
Back upstairs, while wrapping a bottle of glögg that I’ve yet to pop open, Benedikt treated me to a brief history of how Icelandic Christmas has developed over the years. For instance, at one time he says, there were as many as 100 Yule Lads. Also, finding out that I’m studying Icelandic, he had a little winter-themed vocab for me: in Icelandic, “icicle” is “grýlukerti,” literally meaning “Grýla’s candle.”
When I asked him if they did anything special at Jólagarðurinn at Christmas time, however, Benedikt Ingi just shook his head. “Some people come earlier than Christmas, some people come later. And we want there to always be the same atmosphere year round.”
Jólagarðurinn is located just a few kilometres outside of Akureyri on Route 821 and is open year-round, with more limited hours in the winter. There’s no website, but for more information call 463.1433 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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