Iceland likely doesn’t rise to the top of your list when considering possibilities for Christmas and the New Year. It’s winter. It’s cold and often plagued with winds and blizzards during its deep winter months. And it only has about four hours of daylight that feels more like early twilight that time of year. And yet, it’s precisely those conditions as well as its exuberant, unique, and quirky holiday traditions based on Icelandic folklore that make the winter holidays in Iceland an unforgettable holiday experience.
Winter Holidays in Iceland—Magical Lights
Iceland is an island nation of sagas, fire, northern lights, and “hidden people” —elves, trolls, and fairies whose antics are part of the month-long celebration that begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It's during the winter holidays in Iceland when homes put up their Advent lights and neighborhoods and towns glow with twinkling lights for most of the long dark day.
Those little lights add to the holiday magic and warding off pesky trolls that lore say travel from house to house eating food, spilling dinner, and stealing gifts.
Winter Holidays in Iceland—Elves, Trolls, and Fairies
A 2006 study indicates that 56% of the Icelandic population still believe in elves, trolls, and fairies. The magical creatures who first appeared in the epic, medieval sagas that shaped the isolated country.
In December each year, the tradition is celebrated with the thirteen Yule Lads who arrive, one each day, the thirteen days prior to Christmas. The Lads are trolls, all sons of Gryla and Leppaludi who live in a mountain cave and steal misbehaving children. Each son has each been endowed with a name that describes his special holiday prank.
Bjugnakraekir (Sausage Snatcher) steals sausages. Hurdaskellir (Door Slammer) goes through homes slamming doors with a bang. Askasleikir (Bowl Licker) steals bowls of food and eats the leftovers. The three brothers wander the streets of Reykjavik and making appearances at public holiday events.
To appreciate the existence of Iceland’s “hidden people,” it’s possible to attend The Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavik to learn more from Headmaster Magnus H. Skarphedinsson.
Skarphedinsson, a researcher, has spent more than three decades collecting accounts from those who have seen and spoken with the island’s thirteen types of elves, two species of trolls, and three varieties of fairies.
Over coffee and pancakes, he regaled me with stories of roads built to bypass boulders inhabited by trolls and dwarfs. Afterward, he presented me with a book of the tales he’s collected and posed for a photo with my son and me. It was indeed a memorable way for me to spend the winter holidays in Iceland.
Winter Holidays in Iceland—Christmas Traditions
The winter holidays in Iceland are filled with traditional events. Advent Sunday marks the beginning of a season of friends and family attending Christmas concerts in churches and community halls. In Reykjavik, the spectacular, iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church that towers over the city has a series of concerts as does the equally beautiful, architectural Harpa Concert Hall. The National Museum of Iceland has a full schedule of family events that include the Yule Lads.
Gathering at homes and cafés for special holiday delicacies is part of the experience. Making and eating Laufabraud, a round, deep-fried wheat cake decorated with intricate patterns, is a culinary tradition.
On December 23rd, the tradition is Skotuveislur, parties in which friends and family go to restaurants to eat fish that’s been fermenting for over a month. Often, it’s downed with the traditional Christmas drink, a mixture of malt and orange sodas. Today, people often substitute beer for orange soda. Beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989 but has become the most popular drink in the country as the craft beer scene utilizes Iceland’s pure, high-quality water.
Iceland sells more books per capita than any country in the world and even more so during December, in a sales event known as the Christmas Book Flood. The tradition is that everyone receives at least one book for Christmas. After the Christmas Eve (Adfangadagskvold) festivities, Icelanders crawl into bed with a book and traditional hot chocolate to read. Christmas Day (Joladagur) consists of family parties, food, and more reading.
Winter Holidays in Iceland—New Year's Eve
The winter holidays in Iceland culminate in a grand celebration on New Year's Eve. As with many other country’s traditions, fire for Iceland’s New Year’s Eve (Gamlarsdagur) symbolizes the burning away of the old year to celebrate the new one. Almost every town in the country has a community New Year’s Eve bonfire called a Brenna.
In Reykjavik, there are ten brenna located throughout the city, all lit around 8:30 PM, drawing friends, family, and tourists to meet and celebrate the waning old year. Between Christmas and New Year’s, Iceland’s emergency service organization sells fireworks as a fundraiser. As the clock strikes midnight, 500 tons of fireworks light up the night sky across the country.
Touring Iceland in the Winter
Iceland's tourism operation doesn’t shut down during the holiday season except for exceptionally inclement weather (loftslag in Icelandic). Tour operators will take you to see the country’s sights—the Golden Circle, the Blue Lagoon, glacier hikes, diving, snowmobiling, and the Northern Lights—if you tire of the holiday festivities.
And on the rainy days when the wind blows sideways, there are museums to visit, stores filled with traditional wool Icelandic sweaters and products made by hip Icelandic designers to wander through. Everywhere there are bookstores and coffee shops to tuck into for some quiet.
Celebrating the winter holidays in Iceland is an opportunity to experience the country at its traditional and contemporary best. The long, dark days add to the magic and create an intimate experience where you feel as though you're authentically part of the small country's holiday traditions.