Christmas in Iceland is a very special time of year. Most of the island’s breathtaking landscapes are blanketed in snow, shops and homes are decked out in holiday regalia and Icelanders are happy at home, preparing feasts for the festive season. If you visit Iceland in December, you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the remarkable holiday atmosphere. Traveling in Iceland during Christmas is a great idea and is one trip you won't soon forget.
The majority of restaurants offer Christmas menus or buffets. This can be a great way to try traditional Icelandic cuisine. The menu normally includes hangikjöt (smoked meat), hamborgahryggur (marinated pork), laufabrauð (crunchy bread) or more sophisticated dishes such as hreindır (reindeer) or rjúpa (snow partridge).
In the days leading up to Christmas, you’ll find holiday markets in Reykjavik and all over the island, outdoor ice skating, exhibitions, concerts, and many other enjoyable Yuletide activities.
From December 12th to 24th, the thirteen Yule Lads come one by one to leave a small gift in the shoes of children who have behaved well. Bad children receive a potato. The Yule Lads are thirteen brothers who live in the mountains with their mother Grýla. During the month of December, you can find them in Dimmborgir in the Myvatn zone in north Iceland.
Þórlaksmessa takes place on December 23rd. This is the day when Icelanders eat skata, a type of fermented skatefish, or hangikjöt, which is lamb meat that has been boiled and smoked. Most of the stores stay open until 11pm to cater to last-minute shoppers. Reykjavik’s main shopping street is filled with people until the stores close. Thousands of people go there to make purchases, walk around, and enjoy the overall Christmas ambience.
Aðfangadagur is Christmas Eve, and this is the most important day of Christmas holidays in Iceland. In the evening, families gather to have dinner, attend Christmas mass, or listen to the radio while they exchange and open presents. They spend the rest of the night reading new books, playing new games and eating chocolate. It is said that Jólakötturinn, the monster and vicious Yule cat, comes for children who do not received new clothes on Christmas Eve and takes them to the mountains.
On the table, you're likely to find some sort of smoked meat such as hangikjöt and laufabrauð ( a typical Icelandic type of lightly fried bread in the shape of a small, flat cake with geometric patterns that have been carved by small knives). The meat dish is generally pork such as hamborgaryggur, but some people prefer to eat freshly caught partridge (rjúpa). For dessert, Icelanders often serve homemade cookies called smákökur.
On Christmas Day, Jóladagur, and Boxing Day, Annar í Jólum, most people spend time with their family eating and resting.
What to do during Christmas in Iceland
Pretty much everything is closed in Iceland from midday on Christmas Eve until the 27th of December. The increase in tourism has changed things a little bit but not that much.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that there is no public transportation or any domestic flights during these dates. Every year, the official websites of Iceland's two biggest cities (http://www.visitreykjavik.is and http://www.visitakureyri.is/) publish an updated list of restaurants, pools and museums that stay open during the holidays.
It's extremely important to make a reservation at a restaurant during this period to assure you have a place to eat. In other parts of Iceland, most hotels and restaurants are closed, so you need to be well prepared if you're planning to visit Iceland during this time of year. Some travel agencies offer excursions during the holidays and you can find more information on the websites provided above.
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