An Iceland Christmas

Yule-Tide Cheer: Winter Holidays in Iceland

Many of the traditions Americans practice at Christmas come to us courtesy of Victorian-era authors like Charles Dickens, whose A Christmas Carol helped imbue the holiday with the spirit of cheer and goodwill now known so well. But in many other countries, ways of celebrating Christmas are very different, influenced by olden beliefs. One such country is Iceland. Icelanders are proud to note that they began celebrating this holiday before most other countries in the world, and the occasion is still strongly influenced by Nordic heritage. In Iceland, Christmas is called Yule (the holiday greeting is "Good Yule!") and is strongly associated with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Yule celebrations go on for twelve full days in Iceland, ending with Yule Day itself. During this time, people celebrate togetherness with many family-oriented traditions.

St. Thorlakur's Day

St. Thorlakur, a bishop and theologian, is the beloved patron saint of Iceland. St. Thorlakur's day is celebrated on the 23rd of December, the day of his death in 1193. On this day, a simple meal of skate - drawing on the traditional Icelandic diet of which seafood is a major part - is eaten by families all over the country. This also tends to be the day when the Yule Tree is decorated. Evergreen trees are now imported and grown for this purpose, though rowans were more associated with Iceland in former times. St. Thorlakur's Day is also one of the biggest shopping days during the holiday season, in preparation for gift-giving occasions later.

St. Thorlak: All about the bishop who became known as Iceland's patron saint, and his life and work in the country.

Yule Eve (Aofangadagur)

Immediate family members spend Yule Eve together and children may open their presents beginning at six o'clock in the evening, after the family meal is completed. All television broadcasts throughout the country are suspended around five in the afternoon and do not return until ten o'clock that night. Family members tend to gather around the radio to listen to evening prayer together and enjoy one another's company. At the end of the evening, everyone retires to bed for the larger celebrations of Yule Day. For Icelandic children, the fun is just beginning!

Yule in Iceland: Extremely thorough Icelandic website (text in English) describing all of the various customs, history, and characters associated with Yule.

Yule Day (Joladagur)

During Yule Day, the entire extended family gathers together. On this day there is a large feast (called hanjikjot) with lavish desserts. Smoked mutton is the iconic food of the Icelandic Yule banquet. Traditionally, the mutton has been slaughtered in advance so that rich mutton soup could be served leading up to Yule Day. The big day also includes rock ptarmigan, a local bird, and leaf bread - thin sheets of dough cut into special holiday patterns and then fried. Porridge is also served: this is a beloved delicacy thanks to the historical rarity of grain in Iceland. Cookies, cake, and whipped cream are the specialty treats that serve as dessert. After this, children give Yule gifts to each other.

Christmas in Iceland: Overview of the holiday, its traditions, and its characters. Provided by the government of Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland.

New Year's Eve and New Year's Day

New Year's Eve takes place on the eighth day of the Yule celebration. Traditionally, this day that greets the new year has been one of the most important in the Icelandic culture. It is considered particularly magical. On this day, seals take on a human form, cows become capable of speech, the dead may rise from the grave, and the elves said to inhabit Iceland secretly move from one home to another. New Year's is a joyous time with bonfires to commemorate the passing of midwinter. The celebration includes dancing for the young, and plenty of fireworks (a custom called "blowing out the year"). Many families spend a good deal of money on fireworks to contribute to the festivities in their community and create a beautiful display that lasts long into the night.

Icelandic Wonders: Elves, Trolls, Myths, Folklore: Informational pages on holiday characters descended from Icelandic folklore, including the Yule Lads and the elves. From an Icelandic museum devoted to local folk tales.

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is the final day of Yule and happens on January 6th. On this day, bonfires continue to burn and there are "elfin" dances. According to legend, both the dances and fires attract attention from the elves who wander Iceland. Those who win the elves' favor may find themselves blessed with elfin gold or subject to other great fortune on this, a most magical day of the year. At six o'clock on Twelfth Night, the year has truly begun and the winter celebrations come to a happy conclusion - until next December!

Icelandic Feasts and Celebrations: Icelandic holiday recipes for Yule, New Year, and other holidays.

Other Icelandic Holiday Traditions

There are many wonderful "characters" associated with Yule. For example, the Yuletide Lads (known as the Jólasveinar) are mischievous imps who begin to visit homes each day from December 12th. They play small pranks and may bring gifts, such as toys and fruit, if a child leaves shoes on the windowsill. The Lads' mother is Gryla, once depicted as a fearsome ogre who travels Iceland begging and hoping to snatch naughty children - luckily, the children always escape, and in modern times the character has become less frightening. The most ferocious character of today may be the Yule Cat, a beastly feline who tries to devour children who did not receive a new woolen garment before Yule; in some versions, this cat is Gryla's pet. Yule is a time for togetherness, feasting on rich foods - smoked mutton and leaf bread are rare in the rest of the year - and generosity. Gift-giving was not typical of Yule until the 1800s - gifts were given at summer instead. Gradually, gift-giving traditions grew up from the custom of employers giving each worker one new item of clothing and a sturdy pair of shoes each Yule. Icelanders soon began giving candles at Yule - which burned much brighter than oil lamps - and then began to give other presents, especially books. Iceland's Yule celebration is a beautiful blend of ancient and modern customs that everyone can look forward to each year!

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