Christmas Traditions: Australia and Canada Edition

An Icelandic Christmas Down Under

Elin de Ruyter - IR Volunteer

While most Australians celebrate Christmas Day - the 25th of December, Christmas has always been the 24th of December in my family. In Australia our Christmas’ are hot and dry as it falls in our summer, our season of extreme heat, bushfires and thunderstorms. As a child my Christmas’ were spent trying to keep cool by the poolside or playing board games under the fan counting down the hours until five o´clock in the evening when we would dress in our finest clothes and our Christmas would begin.


Of course, growing up in an Icelandic family my parents carried on with the traditions they had themselves grown up with in Iceland. Some years the thirteen Yule lads even made the long journey from the Icelandic mountains to Australia to place a lolly in our shoe by the window.


Elin's father and sisters at Christmas dinner

While most Aussies spent Christmas Day opening gifts from Santa and eating a cold lunch of ham, prawns and salads, we celebrated our Christmas the Icelandic way. On the 24th my mother would swelter in the kitchen all day preparing the hot dinner my sisters and I looked forward to all year. Months earlier my mother would put her order in at the butcher for a leg of triple smoked mutton, for our main dish of hángakjöt with white sauce, caramelised potatoes, red cabbage, cooked peas and carrots. But we would begin the feast with an entrée of asparagus soup served with whipped cream and warm oven baked rolls. One year my father even attempted to make his own version of the Icelandic Christmas drink Égil’s Malt og Appelsín but it didn't quite compare to the real thing. After dinner the family would all sit by the Christmas tree and presents were given out and dessert was served.


This was the Christmas of my childhood. Now that I’m a grown woman with a family of my own, we have incorporated the Icelandic tradition with my husband's Australian tradition. We celebrate both days and my children hear stories of the mischievous Yule lads but also anticipate the arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas Day.

Elin's family at Christmas



Bridging Traditions Between Canada and Iceland

Natalie Guttormsson - IR Volunteer

I've lived in several different provinces, and thus have experienced very different weather on Christmas throughout my life. I remember one Christmas in BC when I was five and Santa brought me a beautiful wooden toboggan but he forgot to bring me snow. So, I had to use my imagination and push myself across the living room carpet, imagining snow instead. One Christmas in Ontario brought such a severe ice storm that shops were closed early and my grandparents were without power and had to rely on their wood stove for a week. We usually travelled to their home for Christmas and had to reschedule our travel plans until after New Year's.


No matter where I was living, the constant element in my Christmas celebrations for as long as I can remember was the making of Vínarterta. As a child, my mom made the cake, but I helped put the layers together. As I grew older, she trusted me to stew and blend the prunes. Then one year she allowed me to roll out the cookie layers, even though my stretched 7th layer was a lot to be desired, each year grew easier. The first time I lived on my own, I was at a loss because I did not have the circular pie plate to make my cookie layers. I broke tradition completely and made a rectangular one and then iced the Icelandic flag on top instead of our usual almond-icing. It just wasn't the same!

Growing up we usually spent the 24th watching classic movies like "Miracle on 34th Street" or "A Christmas Carol" before going to bed early so that Santa could come and fill the stockings and leave gifts that we then opened on the morning of the 25th. We spent Christmas day eating snacks, enjoying our gifts, and cooking Christmas dinner that we ate that night. Now that I have my son, I've taken the opportunity to create new traditions for him. I still make Vínarterta, and we still get stockings from Santa on Christmas morning, but my husband and I have chosen to open presents on the night of the 24th. We also decided to forgo the Dec. 1 - Dec. 24 advent calendar, and instead welcome the Jólasveinar to visit. My son loves running to the living room to check his shoe in the window for the gift of the day - so much so, that I fear I went overboard and set the bar too high this year!

The wonderful thing about traditions is that it is both fun to look back and remember those of our childhoods, but it is also fun to choose new ones to pass onto our kids. Traditions are only lost forever if we give up on them.

My son as the Jólasveinar

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Icelandic Roots is a non-profit, educational, heritage organization specializing in genealogy, history & traditions of our Icelandic ancestors.

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