Iceland is a special place with an array of holiday traditions that are as unique as the island its self.
In Iceland, the Christmas festivities start on December 24th and last for 12 nights until January the 6th. In many northern countries, Christmas has its roots in ancient traditions connected to the winter solstice. Former non-Christian cultures celebrated ‘Yule’ on the shortest day of the year, which is also very close to the traditional Christmas season. Many of the early traditions surrounding Yule are a mystery to us today, but what hasn’t changed much over the centuries is the food and drink! Feasting and ale were the order of the day with Icelandic Chieftains inciting scores Yule drinking fests.
After Christianity became the prevalent religion, the pagan Nordic traditions were replaced by celebrations of the birth of Christ. Christianity had long since been adopted in Rome, the prevailing power of the day. Celebrations of Christmas replaced pagan holidays in many places thanks to Rome’s influence. The 13 day celebrations began in the 4th and 5th Centuries. Most Christian nations celebrated Christ’s birth on Dec. 25th and his baptism on Jan. 6th along with the adoration of the Wise Men.
While the holiday many be 13 days long and includes many beloved and time-honored traditions, to some getting ready for the festivities is just as much of a tradition at that time of year. For hundreds of years people have been caught up in Christmas preparations the week before the holiday kicks-off. The Icelandic people would traditionally refer to this time as ‘Fast Advent’. This name arose because of the old Christian practice of fasting before Christmas.
Just as one would leading up to Easter, Icelanders would restrict their diet in the weeks before Christmas, often eating no meat during this time. The term Advent comes straight from the Latin word ‘adventus’, which means ‘to arrive’. In many Christian cultures, Advent is a time to prepare both your spirit and your home preparations for the arrival of Christmas. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas is a time for spiritual reflection and for hard work and everyone pitches in to make Christmas memorable. In modern times the popularity and love of Christmas has meant that people often start their Christmas preparations long before Advent arrives. However, Advent is still a special time, when we rush and plan and cook and decorate, all to get ready for a season of togetherness when we spend time with those we love.
Modern Icelandic Christmas may differ from the traditions of old, but the amount of time and preparation that is put into the festivities has certainly not decreased! In modern Iceland, before the bells ring in the Christmas celebrations, from cards and gifts to new Christmas clothes, a good Christmas cleaning and decorations for the house, everyone pitches into to make a festive holiday season. Thirteen days before Christmas children leave their shoes by their window to be filled by the Yule lads (the Icelandic version of Father Christmas/Santa Claus) on his visit. Like in the feast days of old, Christmas food is an essential part of any celebration. When Christmas Eve arrives and all the preparation is finally done, Icelanders settle in for 12 spectacular days and nights of parties and entertainment.
Celebrating Christmas in Iceland – Food
There is no shortage of food to be found at the Laugarvegur shopping district. With a wide array of pubs, restaurants and clubs, you appetite for Christmas cuisine is sure to be satisfied along with your desire for a night on the town. The center also provides for a relaxing setting after a day of shopping or sightseeing.
The aroma coming from Reykjavik on Dec. 23 is sure to be a strong attraction for all fish lovers. The traditional skate parties are held yearly the day before Christmas Eve, when the natives cook this special north Atlantic species of ray fish. Most restaurants in Reykjavik offer skate at this time of year, but skate is a particular specialty of Saegreifinn seafood restaurant, which we highly recommend. The smell might take some getting used to, but the party should not be missed.
Baked goods are a specialty of an Icelandic Christmas. Laufabrauð, a uniquely shaped deep-fried wheat bread, is an Icelandic delicacy that should not be missed at Christmas time and is best eaten with a little butter. If you have a bit of a sweet tooth, why not try some of the traditional Icelandic Christmas cookies, baked with love by the locals.
Perfect for some last minute or after-Christmas shopping, Reykjavik boasts Europe’s largest shopping mall! Smaralind is just a short bus or taxi ride from our hostel. Smaralind’s prices are competitive with European prices, and in many, if not most cases you can find a terrific deal.
Kringlan shopping center, like Smaralind, is located in relatively close our hostel. Kringlan is regarded as Iceland’s first modern shopping mall. Even though this indoor shopping center has been open for 25 years, it has modern amenities and trendy places to shop.
The closest and most convenient shopping is located in the Laugarvegur shopping district, less than five minute walk from our hostel. At Christmas time, this district lights up the dark northern days with twinkling lights and festive decorations, setting a romantic scene in late November and December. The snow is the final finishing touch to make this area into the perfect winter wonder land. Come and experience the magic of an Icelandic Christmas with your loved ones and have a holiday season that you’ll never forget.
Christmas in Iceland: a holiday season as unique as Iceland itself!
© 2014 Iceland24, October 2014