What is so special about Christmas in Iceland?

Displaying a family at Christmas.
Family at a Christmas market in Iceland.

Did you know that in Iceland there are 13 Santa Claues called the Yule Lads? And that we open our Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve? 

Well, if you’re thinking about a Christmas trip to Iceland these are things you might like to know about before arriving. 

Christmas, or “Jól” as we call it, is probably the biggest event of the year and to make sure you get the most on your vacation we´re going to cover some of the best and strangest Icelandic Christmas traditions. 

Christmas Lights and Decorations

The holiday season starts with Advent, in late November and it does not end until early January. So, throughout December there is usually something going on related to Christmas. 

During this rather long Christmas holiday period everything starts to become more and more Christmasy. Visitors are often amazed by the number of Christmas lights and decorations found in Iceland in December.

We do like to light up Iceland over the holidays. After all, it is the darkest time of the year. There are only a few hours of daylight so Christmas lights are ideal as they look so much better after dark. 

That’s why we put them up early and leave them up for as long as possible. 

Christmas food in iceland
Hangikjöt is smoked lamb and the traditional Icelandic Christmas food.

Special Christmas Events

Winter festivals are a huge part of how Icelanders celebrate Christmas. Christmas markets are found in towns and cities around Iceland. They usually center around the town Christmas tree which is lit up in early December. 

There you will often find some of the Icelandic Yule lads entertaining crowds. A popular event, especially among children. 

At some Christmas markets, such as in downtown Reykjavik and Keflavik, ice skating rinks and other fun winter activities are available. 

Books are an extremely important part of Christmas in Iceland. Icelanders love to celebrate Christmas by reading. Therefore authors and publishers aim to release their work before Christmas. Creating what we call the Christmas book flood.

SEE ALSO: Where is Iceland? – How to visit the Land of Ice and Fire

The Christmas food in Iceland

A smoked lamb, called “hangikjöt” is the most iconic and popular Christmas food in Iceland. It is boiled and served with a white sauce and potatoes. Along with pickled red cabbage, carrots, green peas and deep fried leaf bread. 

The smoked lamb is the preferred choice for most Icelanders on Christmas day.

The day before Christmas, December 23rd, is called “Þorláksmessa” or Saint Þorláks day. On that day Icelanders like to eat a very special meal, a fermented skate fish. 

What makes fermented skate fish so special is that it has a very strong smell and taste. Much like the Icelandic fermented shark. It will not go unnoticed. To be honest it is an unpleasant smell and the taste is certainly to everyone’s liking. 

To get past the taste and smell many turn to alcohol and soak the fermented skate in lamb fat. It sounds disgusting, but it helps and if you feel adventurous on your Christmas trip why not try it. It’s definitely a unique experience.   

Shoe with candy at christmas.
To receive gifts for the Yule Lads, kids need to place their shoe in the window.

The 13 Yule lads of Iceland

There is no Santa Claus in Iceland. Instead children get gifts from the Yule Lads. Today, the Yule Lads are similar figures as Santa Claus. A symbol of kindness to children and beloved as such. They even have the same name in Icelandic as Santa Claus, “Jólasveinn,” meaning Christmas guy.

The difference is however that they are 13, not just one. Therefore kids in Iceland get 13 presents, one from each lad over a 13 days period. In order to receive gifts kids need to place their shoe in the window sill where they sleep and during the night one of the lads will appear and leave a small gift for them. 

Just like Santa Claus the Yule lads have a justice system where they only reward good behaving kids. Those who have been bad will wake up to a potato in their shoe. 

Strange origin of the Yule lads

It sounds like every kid’s dream, having 13 Santa Clauses visiting and bringing gifts. While that might be true today the Yule lads backstory is far from being a fairy tail.

The 13 Yule Lads are in fact brothers of a troll descend living in the mountains of Iceland. They all have different characteristics and identities. 

Now the Yule Lads haven’t always been the fun song loving Santa Clauses that we see today. 

Up until recently they were mostly known for their criminal activities as they would break into people’s homes to steal food and harass them.  

They are either named after their appearance or behavior. To name a few we have Spoonlicker, Window Peeper, Sausage Snatcher and Doorway Sniffer.

As the names suggest, the Yule Lads were not exactly the most popular guests you could ask for. Especially around Christmas. 

Christmas cat in Iceland.
You better get new clothes before Christmas or else the Christmas Cat will eat you!

The Christmas Cat and Grýla 

The Yule lad aren´t the only strange Christmas characters in Iceland. We also have Grýla, the mother of the Yule Lads and their Christmas Cat. Like the Yule Lads, both Grýla and the Christmas Cat only appear shortly before Christmas. 

Grýla is a troll and eats children which have misbehaved throughout the year. She goes out with a giant sack and hunts the ones that have been bad. She then takes them back to her cave where she cooks them and eats, with her husband “Leppalúði.”

The Christmas cat is a giant black cat that also eats children. However unlike his owner, he doesn’t go after the ones that have been bad. He only eats children who do not get new clothes for Christmas.   

The biggest day of the year: Christmas Eve

In Iceland Christmas is celebrated on Christmas eve, rather than on Christmas day. December 24th is the main day. It is when we dress up in our nicest clothes, have our finest dinner and most importantly, it is when we open up the Christmas gifts.

New years in Iceland, at Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik.
New years in Iceland, at Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik.

Celebrating the New Year in Iceland

New Year’s Eve is quite special in Iceland. Here it is the public which buys and shoots up the fireworks which lit up the last night sky of the year. The fireworks are sold to raise funds for programs such as the search rescue squads

As Icelanders both want to say goodbye to the old year with style and put money to a good cause the amount of fireworks bought is just ridiculous. 

About 700 tons of fireworks are sold each year and they are all blown up in matters of minutes. Making New Year’s Eve in Iceland one of the most amazing firework displays found in the world. 

Rent a car in Iceland for Christmas

If you´re spending Christmas in Iceland and want to get the most from your time here, a rental car is your best option. 

There are just so many exciting things going on and you need to be mobile if you want to catch them e. By renting a car you will also have the chance to experience more than just Christmas. Like seeing the Northern lights or visiting the Blue Lagoon.

For driving in Iceland in December we recommend a medium sized 4×4/AWD like Suzuki Vitara or a large SUV like a Toyota Land Cruiser. Especially if you plan on going far from Reykjavik.

If the plan is only to stay in Reykjavik, a smaller car such as a Kia Picanto or Kia Stonic should be fine. 

SEE ALSO: The Ultimate Guide To Winter Driving In Iceland