All About Iceland Christmas Traditions

6 minute read

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By Max Naylor

20 July 2022

Snow falling over Reykjavík

For many Icelanders, Christmas is the biggest holiday of the year. It’s a chance to relax and be merry with friends and family. But how exactly do you celebrate Christmas in Iceland? Read on to find out all about Iceland Christmas traditions.

You might be surprised to hear that Icelanders begin their Christmas celebrations on 12 December. This is when the first of the ‘Yule Lads’ arrives, bringing mischief with him. They are part of Iceland’s very own Christmas folklore, more to come on that.

As Christmas Eve itself draws near, you’ll notice Icelanders rushing to buy presents in time for the big day. And of course, stocking up on all the tasty treats to enjoy over the holiday season.

Visit Iceland in the run-up to Christmas, and you’ll experience the undeniable festive magic for yourself. Take a wander down any Icelandic street at this time of year and you’ll spot twinkling fairy lights and decorations in the windows.

On top of the cozy atmosphere, you’ll have the chance to hunt the Northern Lights or see snow on Christmas Day. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

How Icelanders celebrate Christmas

A traditional Icelandic Christmas is similar to that of most other European countries, but with a Nordic twist. In fact, the Icelandic word for Christmas is jól, pronounced ‘yoal’, which isn’t far off the English word ‘Yule’!

Here’s some things Icelanders get up to at Yuletide:

  • Exchanging Christmas gifts, especially books
  • Making laufabrauð, or ‘leaf bread’, with intricate patterns
  • Buying a real Christmas tree and decorating it together
  • Baking jólakaka, ‘Christmas cake’, with vanilla and raisins
  • Singing Christmas songs in a church choir

Many of these are traditions you can take part in yourself if you visit Iceland around Christmastime. But what actually happens on the big day?

24 December: Christmas Eve

As in other Northern European countries, Christmas Eve is the centerpiece of the holiday in Iceland. It’s known as aðfangadagur in Icelandic, or ‘Preparation Day’.

The main focus of the day is the Christmas dinner, which is often a large feast where families gather together. You can read all about what kind of food Icelanders eat on this day in just a little bit. Festivities kick off at 6 p.m. in most families. This is when presents are given and opened, with kids usually getting the most.

Icelanders love to give books as gifts. In the weeks before Christmas, there’s a flood of new books onto the market, known as jólabókaflóðið. Visit at this time of year and you’ll see locals streaming into bookshops to pick up all the latest titles. You can even pick up some English translations of Icelandic classics for yourself.

25 December: Christmas Day

Christmas Day, or jóladagur, is a pretty low-key day in Iceland. As the main celebrations are the night before, most people simply spend the day relaxing, eating treats, and visiting family.

Icelandic Christmas food

Of course, in Iceland as in other countries, food is a big part of the Christmas festivities. You’ll see lots of locals going to a jólahlaðborð, or Christmas buffet, with work colleagues or extended family in the run-up to Christmas.

Ptarmigan, Icelandic Christmas food. Credit: Gotterí og gersemar/Berglind Hreiðarsdóttir
Ptarmigan, a traditional Icelandic Christmas dinner (© Gotterí og gersemar/Berglind Hreiðarsdóttir)

When it comes to Christmas dinner, what exactly do Icelanders eat? There’s no one set meal, but it’ll usually center around one of the following meats:

  • Rjúpa, ptarmigan (a small game bird)
  • Hamborgarhryggur, joint of ham
  • Lambalæri, leg of lamb
  • Kalkúnn, turkey

The traditional accompaniments are sugar-glazed potatoes, and red cabbage with the ptarmigan. As ptarmigan numbers have fallen in Iceland, meats such as ham and turkey have grown in popularity.

For a taste of Icelandic Christmas at home, why not try this ptarmigan recipe (link in Icelandic) from Berglind Hreiðarsdóttir? If you can source it sustainability of course.

On Christmas Day, some Icelanders serve hangikjöt or smoked lamb. You can find this dish here all year round, but locals don’t normally cook it at home except at Christmas. It’s served with potatoes, peas, and a béchamel sauce.

Christmas drinks in Iceland

Visit Iceland in December and you’re likely to see something called jólabjór in alcohol shops and bars.

This is none other than Icelandic Christmas beer, which seems to go on sale earlier every year! Many of Iceland’s breweries take part in this tradition, producing a special version of their beer with special seasonal flavors. Christmas beers are often darker, sometimes having a maltier taste or being flavored with spices.

Another popular drink in Iceland at Christmas is malt og appelsín. This a cocktail of two of the country’s most-loved soft drinks, malt extract and Appelsín, an orange-flavored drink similar to Fanta. You can buy it ready-mixed in shops, so why not try it yourself?

Village of Vik in South Iceland.jpg

Icelandic Yule Lads

Icelanders are known for their storytelling, a legacy that stretches all the way back to the sagas of the Viking era. So it stands to reason that this legend-loving nation would have its very own traditional Christmas folklore.

This is centered on the Jólasveinar or ‘Yule Lads’. They’re sometimes described as Santa Clauses, but they’re really more like mischief-makers with a giving side. You can meet the Yule Lads for yourself at various Christmas festivals around Iceland.

They appear in the run-up to Christmas starting on 12 December. A different one arrives each day until 25 December. They all have quite silly names that reflect the kind of trickery they inflict on the people they visit:

  • Stekkjastaur ‘Sheepcote Clod’
  • Giljagaur ‘Gully Gawk’
  • Stúfur ‘Stubby’
  • Þvörusleikir ‘Spoon-Licker’
  • Pottaskefill ‘Pot-Scraper’
  • Askasleikir ‘Bowl-Licker’
  • Hurðaskellir ‘Door-Slammer’
  • Skyrgámur ‘Skyr-Gobbler’
  • Bjúgnakrækir ‘Sausage-Swiper’
  • Gluggagægir ‘Window-Peeper’
  • Gáttaþefir ‘Doorway-Sniffer’
  • Ketkrókur ‘Meat-Hook’
  • Kertasníkir ‘Candle-Stealer’

If you wander the streets of Iceland at Christmastime, you’ll likely notice small shoes left in people’s windows. The Yule Lads will leave small presents for children inside them as they arrive, but only if the children have been good! If not, they’ll get a rotten potato instead.

Grýla the Ogre and the Christmas Cat

Let us tell you the story of the Yule Lads, the sons of a formidable ogre called Grýla. She lives in a cave in the mountains, but comes down into towns and villages at Christmas. Plus, she keeps track of which children have been good and bad, and begs parents to give her their naughty children. The ogre then makes them into a stew, her favorite meal.

Grýla has a pet cat known as Jólakötturinn or ‘Christmas Cat’. The legend goes that he crawls around, sniffing out people who haven’t got any new clothes to wear for Christmas. If he finds someone wearing old clothes, he’ll gobble them up!

In recent years, the internationally recognized Santa Claus has become more popular in Iceland. But as the Icelandic Christmas legend is still alive and well, he doesn’t seem to mind sharing the fame too much.

Fireworks in front of Hallgrímskirkja church, Reykjavík on New Year’s Eve

New Year’s in Iceland

After the cozy family-focused celebrations of Christmas, Icelanders have a few days’ rest before getting into the New Year’s party mood. On New Year’s Eve, you’ll see bonfires roaring in the neighborhoods of Reykjavík.

Then later in the evening, people will join parties and gather around the TV to watch Áramótaskaupið. This is an hour of comedy parodying the main events, political and cultural, of the past year. It’s a tradition to watch it together over a drink.

As the night continues, so does the partying! It all comes to a head at midnight, when large firework displays begin and Icelanders ring in the New Year.

The days around New Year’s are perfect for getting out into Iceland’s wintry nature. Go snowmobiling, chase down the Northern Lights, or relax in a hot spring. You can do all of this on one of these Iceland New Year’s tour packages.

Planning a festive trip to Iceland

The holiday season is a great time to visit Iceland. You can surround yourself with warm Christmassy vibes and celebrate things a little differently than you would normally. There’s also a good chance of a white Christmas!

Meanwhile, a New Year’s is perfect if you want to experience Iceland’s famous party atmosphere and start the new year with a bang. It’s also worth remembering that Iceland’s natural attractions are open all year round. This means you can see the wonders of the Golden Circle or marvel at Iceland’s waterfalls on your Christmas or New Year trip as well.

Travel with Iceland Tours and you’ll be able to choose from a wide range of Iceland vacation packages. Many of these run throughout the festive period. What’s more, if you want to celebrate like the locals do, opt for a special Christmas or New Year trip, with seasonal meals included.

So check out these winter trips to Iceland and start dreaming about how you could celebrate the holidays this year.


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About the author

Max has been back and forth from Iceland since 2009. He lived and worked there for several years, and although he’s moved away, he left a piece of his heart there. When he’s in Iceland, he loves to relax in the ‘hot pot’, chow down on some local food, and catch up with friends. He speaks Icelandic fluently, so if you need to know how to pronounce ‘Fagradalsfjall’, he’s your guy.

View more posts by Max

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