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Christmas Memories and Traditions: Iceland Edition

Icelandic Roots volunteer, Natalie Guttormsson, asked fellow volunteer Bryndís Viglundsdóttir to reflect on how Christmas celebrations in Iceland have changed compared to her memories of her childhood.

This is the story she wrote...

The Christmas holidays, jólin, as the season is celebrated now-a-days, have certainly changed over the years. My memory of looking forward to the jól stretches back a good 80 years and I would like to share with you some of these memories.

My mother began to look for material for the new dresses, the Christmas dress she would make for us every Christmas. People tried very hard to give their children some new clothing items before Christmas. Why did my mother not just take us to the store and we could pick out a dress there? There were no stores offering such luxury! Ready made clothes for children came much later. Material for clothing was hard to come by during my entire childhood and I associate standing in a queue outside stores that sold material for clothes when Christmas was approaching. The utmost luxury was getting a new pair of shoes. I remember one Christmas when we had been standing in a queue outside a shoe store and when we finally got inside the question was: Have all the shoes been sold? Well, we got in and there were those black patent leather shoes that fit perfectly and never was there such a happy child waiting for Christmas to come. I took them with me to bed not to lose that wonderful smell of the shoes.

The ship bringing the apples from “the faraway countries” was finally in the harbour. Christmas really came with that “apple-bringing” ship when I was a little girl. We lived not far from the harbour but we, the children must not go there. When the apple ship had docked, my parents made the exception and allowed us to go down to the harbour to smell the apples. Some day I am going out in the world to a far away country where the apples grow to see how it is there, I vowed, standing by the ship’s side in the December darkness breathing in the scent of the apples.

Wooden basket with twine handle filled with medium size apples. The basket is sitting on a wooden table. There is a butter knife and a half peeled apple resting on the table in front of the basket.

Sometimes I get that wonderful feeling of gratitude when I walk into the market and see tables loaded with fresh fruits of all sorts. I will admit though that the wonderful scent I found in the harbour by the ship’s side has disappeared.

One Christmas a disaster was hanging in the air. The apple ship was in harbour but the dock workers were on strike and it looked as if there would be no apples for Christmas. What a terrible outlook. But the dispute was solved and people got their Christmas apples!

Flour, sugar and many more items were rationed during my childhood. Eggs were very hard to come by so baking before Christmas was quite a challenge. My parents knew a farmer close to Reykjavík and he owned a few hens. He remembered our home as Christmas was approaching and what a happy day when he had one of his workers bring us some eggs! My mother baked cookies and tortes, always the vínarterta among other sorts. What a feast!

I realize this sounds odd! What is so marvellous about getting two dozen eggs? For us this gift that we got from the farmer before Christmas in my childhood years made the difference for us. So it is when people are helped, whatever the need is!

A metal basket of farm fresh eggs, both brown and white ones. One small soft feather rests on top of the eggs.

Preparing for the Christmas feast evolved much about making new clothes for the children and preparing good food for the family. Finding the ingredients for the festive meals and the baking was a challenge! I remember, for example, many years standing in a queue outside the stores where milk was sold waiting to get cream for the Christmas dessert. Each person could have 1 dl. ( 3.4 ounces) That was not enough cream to make desert for the family of seven so we, the three sisters all waited and would go to more than one store! What a difference walking into the markets December 2019 and seeing all the abundance.

Christmas began at 6 o´clock on the 24th of December. A service at the main church in Reykjavík, Dómkirkjan was broadcast and we gathered around the radio joining the choir singing the Christmas hymns. The minister read the Christmas gospel and we always thought he gave too long a sermon. The food was ready. After the festive meal the table was cleared and then we were allowed to look at our presents. This was the procedure in most families.

The food choices were certainly not as varied as they are now. The smoked lamb was a staple in most houses on Christmas Eve. Some families served a leg of lamb or ptarmigans. Potatoes and vegetables- if available- were served and some sort of a dessert was put on the table after the main meal.

The Christmas tree stood on a table in the corner, only about a yard tall, decorated with candles and some colorful glass items. Our tree was made of wood, had never stood in a forest, but even so we thought it was beautiful! There were only a few evergreen trees in Iceland when I was a young child and no one would have dreamt of chopping them down to use as Christmas trees. We once had a very fancy Christmas tree when my grandfather made a tree and found some branches of juniper to tie to it. It was simply beautiful.

There are many Christmas songs in our culture and one is about walking around the juniper bush. We sang that song with a special enthusiasm the Christmas our grandfather decorated the tree he made with the juniper.

Now -a- days some people are giving immense and expensive Christmas gifts. When I was growing up there was, in many households, little money to use for gifts. People tried to give the children new clothes and serve something special for dinner. For many that was all they could do. When you hear this you realize that “the times are a changing“!

What has not changed, I believe, is our wish that our loved ones, all our brothers and sisters may enjoy a beautiful and joyous holiday season at Christmas, jólin.

Gleðileg jól!

Merry Christmas!

Bryndís Víglundsdóttir

1 Comment

Found this very interesting. Visited Iceland in September. and even found the farm my grandmother was born in before immigrating to Winnipeg in the early 1900’s. I have inherited her spinning and was so thrilled to see so many in the museums there. Was surprised to hear that Santa Claus is not recognized but trolls are. A story about that would be wonderful. Many thanks.


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