RX Beckett

Singer / Writer living in Reykjavík. Transplant from Canada 

4 minute read 02 Dec 2016

13 Things You Didn’t Know About the Icelandic Christmas

One thing you might notice arriving into Reykjavík anytime from November onwards is that Icelanders sure do love them some Christmas. The city lights up with decorations, both public and private, and there’s good cheer in the air. Here are some of the country’s unique ways of marking the season.

1. Christmas day is celebrated on December 24th in Iceland. 

Starting at 6pm sharp, it traditionally begins with a grand family dinner where everyone gets scrubbed and polished and wears their sharpest attire. After dinner comes presents and then general indulging and merriment until everyone passes out.

2. The food is different from what you might expect.  

A traditional Icelandic Christmas meal may include such dishes as smoked lamb (hangikjöt), salted rack of pork (hamborgarhryggur), ptarmigan (rjúpur), and even reindeer. Essential side dishes include boiled potatoes in brown sugar, pickled red cabbage, green peas, and rice pudding with cinnamon and raisins for dessert.

3. There are not one, but thirteen Santa Clauses.

Icelandic children don’t really believe in Santa Claus, but instead worship and fear the 13 Yule Lads. Starting on December 12th, the Yule Lads are said to come down from their mountains and either bring a little present or wreak a little havoc.

4. Christmas beer is delicious.

Every year, Icelandic breweries make special Christmas beers that people look forward to and start dipping into as soon they it hit the taps. They each have their own unique blend, spicing things up with hints of cinnamon, liquorice, chocolate, or extra maltiness.

5. Norway gifts a Christmas tree to Iceland every year.

It is placed in Austurvöllur square in front of Parliament and is lit up in a big fun-filled ceremony. It’s a hugely attended event, especially for families and children.

6. Christmas never really ends in some parts of Reykjavík.

There are two Christmas shops in downtown Reykjavík that operate year-round, for those of whom always feel Christmas in their heart.

7. A Swedish goat suffers a grievous indignation each year.

Each Christmas, Ikea installs a giant straw Christmas Goat, a traditional holiday symbol from Sweden, in front of their store. Almost every year, it quickly becomes the victim of arson, causing both dismay and comedy.

8. Icelanders get their holiday symbols mixed up.

Commonly spotted in windowsills all over the country, Advent lights are seven-armed electric candle-stick decorations that are somewhat unique to Iceland. They slightly resemble a menorah, which can be confusing if you look fast and lead you to overestimate the size of Iceland’s Jewish population.

9. Some Icelandic Christmas songs are based on Italian pop songs.

Christmas tunes are very popular in Iceland but there are very few original ones. Most have adapted lyrics into Icelandic and placed them over the music of traditional American holiday standards and, weirdly enough, Italian 80s pop songs.

10. Staying sober for Christmas is a thing.

Even though Icelanders celebrate most weekends like it’s 1999, it is typically frowned upon to imbibe heavily on the 23rd and 24th. A couple of glasses of wine won’t get you in hot water but hit the sauce too hard and people won’t be impressed.

11. Hot mulled wine is an annual tradition called Jólaglögg.

This refers both to the drink itself – typically a mix of red wine, vodka, spices and sometimes raisins – and also to the act of gathering and drinking it with friends.

12. Orange soda and malt extract is the main Christmas drink.

Another classic Icelandic Christmas drink is the non-alcoholic Jólaöl, which is made by mixing Appelsín orange soda and Malt Extract soda together. You can buy it pre-mixed in equal amounts in most shops, but most locals like to hand mix their own ratio.

13. Fireworks. Lots of fireworks.

And finally, the fireworks. They are only legal to shoot off for a small window of time before and after New Years, so throughout Christmas time you can hear and see fireworks blasting all over the city to mark the good mood.

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