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A Special Christmas Tradition in Iceland

By Shaune Jonasson

Jól, or Christmas, is a time for gathering with family and friends. As much as we wish for these gatherings, they aren’t always possible to arrange. We do our best because Christmas without family or friends can be very different. Iceland embraces a tradition that brings family together, particularly those who have gone before us.

Every year Christians around the globe celebrate Christmas at the end of December. Many other ethnicities and religious factions have celebrations around this same time of year. This is a season of multiple festivities. Regardless of what we celebrate, or where, the important common theme is the gathering of community to celebrate with lights and colour, feasting, singing, and gifting.

Christians celebrate traditions that have evolved over the centuries as well as those that are borne from our own family experiences. Before gathering in celebration, the preparations begin: planning, decorating, cleaning, shopping, plus baking and cooking those special once-a-year-only treats. A flurry of activity builds the excitement that leads up to the celebration.

We’ve learned some traditions celebrated in Iceland derived from those of pagan and Norse origins. They are still embedded within the culture while others are from Christianity’s influence. I would suggest, however, that our Western Icelanders’ celebrations are a hybrid of traditions brought with our ancestors from Iceland and those we’ve adapted to in Canada and the United States. They certainly are in my family.

As we approach the holidays, I wanted to share with you a tradition unique to Iceland that I don’t believe has been carried over into our Western Icelander Christmas celebrations. It was conveyed during Samtal earlier this autumn by Bryndís Viglundsdóttir, a favourite participant at Samtal who joins us from Iceland.

Bryndís’ style of storytelling is unique and engaging. I love to listen to her. On this specific Samtal, she expressed reverently the ritual of honouring their departed loved ones at Christmas. “When we light the candles for our loved ones, it is probably the holiest moment of Christmas- Jól.”

Hafnarfjarðarkirkjugarður: Graveyard in Hafnarjörður Iceland (Photo Credit Geir Gunnlaugsson on flickr)
Hafnarfjarðarkirkjugarður: Graveyard in Hafnarjörður Iceland (Photo Credit: Geir Gunnlaugsson on flickr)

Family is important in Iceland, and even more so during the holidays. In the days leading up to Christmas, and most often in the afternoon of December 24th, families gather at the gravesites paying tribute to their departed loved ones. Candles, lanterns, or decorative Christmas lights are brought to adorn the graves. While setting up the lights, the family fondly shares the many stories. These remembrances bring family members closer together, a perfect start to the holiday.

This year in particular Bryndís’ story resonated with me as I am sure it may have for some of you. I often wish my departed family members were here to share just one more conversation, or one more visit, or one more Christmas. It would be very comforting to light the family gravesites and share our family stories, especially at Christmas. For me, sadly, it is just not that easy. There is far too much distance to where my family rests. Regardless, they will always remain in my heart.

On behalf of Icelandic Roots, I wish you and your loved ones a Christmas celebration that fills your home with love and peace.

Gleðileg Jól! Merry Christmas!

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