As everywhere else in the Christian world, Christmas in Iceland is a special time for family festivities, endless rounds of Christmas dinners, gift-giving, and bright lights to offset the long nights of the winter equinox. Christmas in Iceland is unique for being one of the longest around the world and for combining a curious blend of pious tradition and pagan legend.
The Long Festive Season

The Yuletide celebration in Iceland lasts from the first Sunday of Advent (Latin for “arrival” of the Redeemer, the infant Jesus) and goes on for at least five weeks, till he first Monday of January, when the last of the fabled Yule lads leave their gifts for children who have been good and return to the rugged fastness of Iceland for another year. The season can start even earlier for Eastern Orthodox congregations, who follow the Julian calendar and begin their 40-day countdown to Christmas on November 15.

For Catholics and Anglicans, Advent this year stretches from December 1 to the 22nd, two full days before Christmas Eve. Even this shortened period is long enough to ensure that Christmas in Iceland makes for dizzying round after round of wassail and family celebrations, which every casual visitor is welcome to share.

The countdown to Christmas is epitomized by the four candles that are lit one by one on each Sunday mass. By the time the fourth candle is lit on the last Sunday of Advent, the four tapers in their bed of evergreen boughs and red ribbons signal to one and all Christmas is just around the corner. Also dont forget that mixing the Christmas holidays and the northern lights holidays together is a great idea!

A Prayerful Christmas in Iceland


Christian worship is ingrained into the Icelandic version of Christ. Aside from the ritual of lighting all four Advent candles in succession at solemn masses, Icelanders also solemnize Þorláksmessa (St. Thorlakʼs Mass) a day after the fourth Sunday of Advent and never mind that it’s a Monday. Families also troop to church on Christmas Day, Gamlársdagur (New Yearʼs Eve) and Three Kings, the first Sunday after New Year.

A Joyous Christmas


Every solemnity is also an occasion for Icelanders to indulge their love for music. Masses are apt to be lengthy for being mixed with choral concerts.

Festive gatherings during the season are times for exchanging gifts, enjoying traditional delicacies and indulging children. As everywhere else in the Christian world, the Christmas ham or boneless smoked pork is the centerpiece of the Christmas Eve feast. Other complimentary delicacies are smoked lamb and ptarmigan, akin to quail or the game bird Red Grouse of the pheasant family native to the British moorlands and the Scandinavian tundra.

On New Yearʼs Eve, Icelanders celebrate the highlight of the season. Anticipation builds steadily towards the midnight countdown. As families sit down to an early dinner, Reykjavik and other towns come alight with bonfires, salvoes of firecrackers that sound like a pitched battle, and extravagant displays of fireworks. For some reason, the population likes to while away the countdown glued to a satirical TV show, “Áramótaskaup”, that freely derides politicians.

No, Virginia, There Isn’t a Santa Claus


Icelanders also like to poke a bit of fun at their children. Instead of Jolly Old St. Nick, they have built legends around the black cat and the 13 Yule Lads.

The legend of the 13 Yule lads (“Jólasveinar”) dates back at least to the 17th century. They are said to be the progeny of Grýla and Leppalúði, who routinely ate misbehaving children. The first of the Yule lads come down from the mountains on December 12 and the 13th lad starts roaming the city to leave gifts on Christmas Eve. By January 6th, all the troll children have finished leaving small gifts in the shoes children leave on their window sills if they have been good. Naughty ones receive only a plain potato. This is evidently a transparent device to keep children in line during the long Yuletide season.

The black Christmas cat is a more recent invention. Since children everywhere dislike receiving clothes, Icelanders invented the wicked “Jólakötturinn” as a beast that pounces on any child who receives only toys or electronic games on Christmas Eve.

For information on a great Christmas in Iceland package with or without flight click the link.