Christmas and New Years in Iceland

Magazine Christmas and New Years in Iceland

Christmas and New Years in Iceland

Jól (e. Yule or Christmas) in Iceland is all about customs and traditions. Yule is the ancient name for a winter festival in December and January later referred to as the 12-days of Christmas. Jól in Iceland also includes New Year celebrations.

Thirteen Yulelads
The countdown begins thirteen days before December 24th. Children leave a shoe in the window so that the thirteen Yulelads (jólasveinarnir) can leave small gifts in the shoe.

  • Stekkjarstaur – Sheep-Cote Clod
  • Giljagaur - Gully Gawk
  • Stúfur - Stubby
  • Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker
  • Pottasleikir – Pot-Scraper
  • Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker
  • Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer
  • Skyrgámur - Skyr Gobbler
  • Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage-Swiper
  • Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper
  • GáttaÞefur – Doorway-Sniffer
  • Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook
  • Kertasníkir – Candle-Stealer

Traditional folklore has it that these thirteen brothers leave their home in the mountains, one each day, leading up to Christmas. They head for farms and towns to steal their share of the Christmas food in any shape or form. In later times they have obviously met or heard of the benevolent Santa Claus. Since they have started to leave a little something in the shoes of well behaved and hopeful children that put their footwear on the windowsill in the evening. Good kids wake up finding candy in the shoe, but the naughty ones may receive an old potato, if anything at all. They start going home on Christmas Day, with the last one leaving on Þrettándinn. Traditionally everyone has to get a new piece of clothing for Christmas, or they will end up being eaten by the Jólaköttur (e.Christmas Cat). In general people dress up in their nicest outfits.

The traditional Jól consists of the following days.

Þorláksmessa – Mass of St. Thorlac
December 23rd is the day that honors Thorlakur Thorhallsson, the Bishop of Skálholt, who was canonized and recognized as the patron saint of Iceland in 1984. The main custom is eating a simple meal of skata (e. Skate) and shopping last-minute gifts, with many stores remaining open until midnight.

Aðfangadagur - Christmas Eve
The church bells ring in Christmas at 6:00 pm on December 24th. This most likely comes from an old Icelandic tradition when a new day started at 6.00pm, not midnight. Presents are opened after the evening meal on Aðfangadagur. Books are typical presents and still popular is the tradition of giving playing cards and candles.

Jóladagur - Christmas Day
Jóladagur, December 25th, is usually celebrated with the extended family. Many families enjoy a meal of 'Hangikjöt,' a smoked leg of lamb and 'Laufabrauð' or leaf bread. This is made of thin sheets of dough cut into delicate patterns and fried. Families often have their own designs for the Laufabrauð.

Annar Jóladagur - Boxing Day
Another day of friends and family gatherings. Traditionally public entertainment is considered inappropriate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On Boxing Day, dancing is again allowed in public!

Gamlárskvöld / Nýársdagur - New Year's Eve / New Year's Day
This is one of the most important nights of the year in Iceland, and according to folklore, magic takes place. Cows are meant to be able to talk, seals take on human form, the dead rise from their graves, and the elves move house. A traditional Gamlárskvöld is a festive dinner at 6:00 pm, followed by a trip to a bonfire. Bonfires have been lit on Gamlárskvöld since the late 1700s. People make sure to be home for a TV program called Áramótaskaup – a satire of the year that is passing. At midnight fireworks go off the year that has gone is blown up and a new focus set to the year ahead.

Þrettándinn - Epiphany - January 6th
This is the last day of Christmas, again celebrated with bonfires, Elfin dances and fireworks. Many of the magical traditions associated with New Year's Eve are also linked to Þrettándinn.

Merry Christmas to you or as we say in Icelandic 'Gleðileg jól'.

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