Christmas in Iceland is a very special and atmospheric time of year. Most the island is covered in snow, houses and shops are decorated with many beautiful lights and Icelanders spend a lot of time in their kitchens baking and cooking for the festive season!
If you visit Iceland in December, you will have the chance to enjoy this very special atmosphere. Most restaurants offer Christmas menus or buffets, which is a very good way to sample traditional Icelandic cuisine. Hangikjöt (smoked meat), Hamborgarhryggur (marinated pork), Laufabrauð (crusty bread) or the more sophisticated dishes of Hreindır (reindeer meat) or Rjúpa (snowy partridge) are all on the menu.
In the lead-up to Christmas, in Reykjavik and throughout Iceland, you can find Christmas markets, outdoor ice-skating, exhibitions, concerts and many other festive activities to enjoy.
From the 12th of December until the 24th, the thirteen "Yule Lads" arrive one by one to drop a small gift in the shoe of well-behaved children, children that have been misbehaving will get a potato. The yule lads are thirteen brothers that live in the mountains with their mother Grýla. During the month of December, it is possible to meet them in Dimmuborgir, in the Myvatn area in northern Iceland.
Þórlaksmessa is the 23rd of December; on this day Icelanders eat Skata, a type of rotten fish or hangikjöt , which is a boiled smoked ham. Most stores remain open until 11 pm to accommodate the last-minute shoppers. The main shopping street of Reykjavík, Laugavegur, is crowded with people until the shops are closed, and thousands of people go there to shop or walk and enjoy the festive atmosphere.
Aðfangadagur is Christmas Eve and this is the most important day of the holidays in Iceland. In the evening families meet, have dinner, attend mass or listen to the mass on the radio and exchange and open gifts. The evening is spent reading the new books, playing new games and eating chocolates. It is said that the Christmas cat, Jólakötturinn, takes the children who are not dressed in new clothes with him to the mountain.
On the table, there is probably smoked meat, Hangikjöt, the laufabrauð (bread like a cracker that has patterns decorated on it with a small knife). The meat is usually pork, Hamborgaryggur, but some people eat ptarmigan (Rjúpa) they have caught themselves. For dessert, homemade cookies called Smákökur, are often served.
Christmas Day, Jóladagur, and the 26th of December, annar í jólum are usually spent with family, eating and relaxing.
What to do during Christmas in Iceland
Almost everything is closed in Iceland from noon on the 24th of December to the 27th of December, but with the growth in tourism, this has slightly changed things. However, there is no public transport or domestic flights during this time.
The websites of the two largest cities of Iceland, annually publish a list of restaurants, pools and museums that remain open during the holidays. It is important to book a restaurant, to be sure to have somewhere to eat! In other parts of Iceland, most hotels and restaurants are closed, with some exceptions – be well prepared if you plan to visit at this time of year. Some tourist agencies such Landmannalaugar Tours, offer excursions during the holidays, and you will find more information in the links above.
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