Updated: Dec 18, 2021
People join Icelandic Roots to learn more about their Icelandic heritage. One fantastic way to do so is to attend Samtal Hour (Samtal is Icelandic for conversation). Our previous two Samtal Hours were devoted to memories of Icelandic holiday customs and traditions as well as the holiday foods the participants remembered and enjoyed. Great discussions were held about the Yule Lads and much more. Below are some other preparations, foods, folklore, and festivities.
Icelandic holiday celebrations begin with the First Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation for the birth of the baby Jesus. It is customary for people to meet on Sunday afternoon eating treats such as piparkökur (pepper cookies) and drinking hot chocolate with lots of whipping cream. When eating a piparkökur, put it on your palm then push down on it with your thumb and if it breaks in three, you will have a wish granted. Finally, there is the singing and lighting of the candles of the Advent wreath as part of the countdown to Christmas.
Colored and white lights are put up after the start of Advent although now they are often up earlier. Everywhere is ablaze with lights to help lift people’s spirits and to dispel the darkness during this time of the year. Lights are both inside and outside the house. Lights and candles are also placed in the cemeteries on the gravesites of ancestors where they are visited by their families on Christmas Eve and Christmas.
The official festivities begin in Iceland on December 23rd, Þorláksmessa (St. Thorlak’s Mass) commemorating the death of St. Thorlak, the patron Saint of Iceland. The stores are open until midnight to allow people to finish their shopping and to meet up with friends. A traditional dinner is kæst skata, a fermented skate fish that smells of ammonia along with boiled potatoes.
On December 24th, Christmas Eve (Aðfangadagur) the stores are closed and the Christmas tree is decorated, although many do so earlier now. Everyone must wear their new clothes and the celebration begins at exactly 6 pm when the church bells are rung. Some Icelanders attend church while others begin to eat and listen to services on the radio. A typical jólamatur (Christmas food) menu is likely to include hangikjöt (smoked mutton), uppstúfur (a bechamel-type sauce with potatoes, and peas), red cabbage and laufabrauð (leaf bread) along with a Christmas ale (jólaöl) known as malt og appelsín, a non-alcoholic malt, and orange drink.
For dessert, there might be vinarterta or pönnukökur. Other traditional Icelandic foods mentioned were rúllapysla (rolled and boiled flank) with Icelandic brown bread, lifrarpylsa (liverwurst), kleinur (doughnut pictured with the coffee cup), and haldakökur (caraway flavored cookie).
Gifts are opened after dinner and Christmas cards are read; the custom is to leave them unopened until that night. Singing and dancing around the Christmas tree is next until finally, people settle in to read their new books and drink hot chocolate until the wee hours of the morning. Why read books? Jólabókaflóðið, the Christmas Book Flood, is a very important tradition. We created our own special list HERE.
Christmas Day (Jóladagur) and Boxing Day (Annar í Jólum) is a more relaxed time where people read books, play games, and visit with friends and family.
In Iceland, New Year’s Eve (Gamlársdagur) is another special celebration. It begins with a family dinner before everyone goes to their neighborhood bonfires (áramótabrenna). Whole communities come together to sing and light the bonfires which help the hidden people find their way around as this is is one of the few nights the elves can change houses if they desire. In at least one community, the elf king and elf queen have appeared riding on horses decked out with beautiful clothes, much to the delight of the children. It is important to note that quite a few hidden people moved to North America with the Icelanders when they emigrated.
To show the hidden people they are friends, Icelanders are taught to make a torch before that evening and then people walk around their houses three times one way and then three times the other way. While walking with their torches, they chant over and over again, “Come those who want to come, leave those who want to leave, be those who want to stay, doing no harm to me and my kin.”
According to Icelandic folklore, on this magical night animals may speak. At midnight, there are fireworks everywhere and champagne and hot chocolate are drank. People stay up very late to celebrate the new year. But this is not the end of jól. The official end of the season is Þrettándinn (Epiphany) the thirteen-day after Christmas Eve. There are again bonfires and fireworks although on a much smaller scale.
Not everyone engages in all these customs as this is a summary of customs and traditions shared by Icelandic Roots’ members living in Iceland, Canada, and the United States. Perhaps you can find some new traditions and food to add to your Christmas celebrations.