Iceland, Christmas in

Iceland, Christmas in

The first Europeans settled in Iceland in the ninth century. They were from Scandinavia and the Celtic lands, and some researchers believe that they brought with them a midwinter festival called Yule. They also imported a rich collection of stories, beliefs, and folklore concerning elves, fairies, trolls and other unseen, magical peoples. In the year 1000, Iceland adopted Christianity. This religion called for a new, midwinter holiday called Christmas. Over the years the beliefs and practices associated with Christmas began to eclipse those associated with the earlier pagan feast. Nevertheless, old folk beliefs continued to link this time of year with supernatural creatures and various kinds of heightened paranormal activity (see also Ghosts).

Past Preparations

In past times, Icelanders busied themselves in the week before Christmas preparing for the holiday. Women made candles, baked, cooked, washed clothes, and knit stockings and mittens. The folklore of Iceland abounds in tales of hard-hearted bosses who worked their domestic servants so far into the night during this week that they had to place sticks between their eyelids to keep them propped open. For this reason, Icelanders dubbed the week preceding Christmas "Stick Week." Snacks eaten during this week were named "stick bites." Those who did their share of the work received at least one article of woolen clothing as a Christmas present.

According to Icelandic folklore, the Christmas cat would pursue those who had nothing new to wear on Christmas. This fearsome creature was the pet of Gryla, the ogress who spawned the Christmas Lads. Presumably, fear of falling prey to this hungry, magical cat motivated people to work hard in preparing for the Christmas festival.

St. Thorlak's Day

Icelanders observe December 23 as St. Thorlak's Day. St. Thorlak - an Icelandic monk, as well as the bishop of Skaholt - won fame for his efforts to reform the church, but was murdered in 1193. According to tradition, intensive preparations for the coming Christmas festival took place on this day. People washed clothes, prepared the Christmas feast, and cleaned their homes. Stores stayed open late and people did their Christmas shopping. Today many people mark the day by consuming a simple meal in the evening, often skate hash, a dish similar to the Norwegian lutefisk (see also Norway, Christmas in). In addition, many people wait until St. Thorlak's Day to decorate their Christmas tree.

Christmas Eve and Day

Icelanders begin their Christmas celebrations on Christmas Eve. Many people attend Christmas church services on this day. A large festive meal is prepared for 6 p.m., when Icelanders consider Christmas to begin. Traditional Christmas dishes include hangikjot (smoked meat), halibut, dried fish, sausages, an Icelandic bird called rock ptarmigan, laufabraud (leaf-bread, a type of cookie) and a kind of rice pudding. The rice pudding contains a single almond. Whoever finds the almond in their serving of pudding gets an extra gift. Nowadays many imported foods are available in addition to the traditional Icelandic Christmas fare. In past times custom frowned on the consumption of alcohol at Christmas time, though nowadays people may lubricate their festivities with Christmas ale or other alcoholic beverages.

Families open their presents after dinner on Christmas Eve. When this has been completed some families join hands around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols. Icelandic television stations shut down between 5 and 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, affirming the high value that Icelanders place on having this time together with their families.

On Christmas Day people stay at home with their families, go visiting, attend parties, and continue to enjoy special Christmas foods.

Gift Bringers

The people of Iceland invented their own unique Christmas gift bringers called the Christmas Lads. In past centuries Icelanders imagined this band of thirteen brothers as fearsome trolls. Over the years they shrank in stature and their appetite for troublemaking diminished. Nowadays images of the Christmas Lads often depict them as elf-like beings, dressed in a manner that resembles Santa Claus. The first Lad arrives thirteen days before Christmas. Another comes on the following day and so on, until the household hosts all thirteen elves on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day the first elf leaves. One leaves each day thereafter, until the last Lad departs on Epiphany.

Some Icelanders wish to popularize the idea that Santa Claus lives in Iceland. At one point the government-run Iceland Board of Tourism answered the thousands of children's letters to Santa that arrived in Iceland. After funding cuts decimated this program a private foundation stepped in to answer these letters.

Gifts

In past centuries, each member of an Icelandic household received an article of woolen clothing as a Christmas gift. In the twentieth century Icelanders began to give each other more and different gifts. For example, candles, books, and packs of playing cards became popular gifts. In the second half of the twentieth century a new custom evolved. Children place a shoe on the windowsill in the weeks that precede Christmas. If they have been good, the Christmas Lads will fill the shoe with candy. If not, they might leave a potato there instead. Researchers believe that this custom was imported from Germany some time around the 1920s.

Decorations

Burning candles have long served as important Christmas decorations in Iceland. This makes sense in a land that sees only about four hours of daylight around Christmas time (see also Winter Solstice). Many Icelanders also decorate their homes with Advent wreaths, a custom most likely adopted from Denmark. Trees are relatively scarce in Iceland and most people would never dream of cutting one down merely to use it for a week or two as a Christmas decoration. As a result, the Christmas tree didn't become popular until the second half of the twentieth century, when imported spruce trees became available. Before that time, however, some people constructed homemade artificial trees out of colorful sacks and poles.

New Year's Eve

Icelanders celebrate New Year's Eve with fireworks, bonfires, and "elf dances." The bonfires can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when they began as a means of getting rid of holiday trash. Icelanders continue to enjoy dressing up as elves, trolls, or imps on New Year's Eve. This custom reflects a long-standing belief that magical creatures are out in force on this evening.

According to Icelandic folklore, all manner of supernatural events may occur on New Year's Eve. The dead may rise from their graves, animals may speak, and seals may transform themselves briefly into human beings. What's more, elves are believed to be especially active on Christmas and New Year's Eve. Until recently many people left at least one light burning on these nights as a way of welcoming the elves.

According to Icelandic folklore, elves move their homes on New Year's Eve. This same lore taught that those who catch the elves in the middle of their move might gain an elvish blessing for good luck and wealth. To this end, it recommended that those who dared risk an encounter with these magical beings sit at a crossroads on New Year's Eve. If an elf traveling on either road wanted to get by, he or she would try to lure the human to move with promises of money, treasure, food, and other tempting things. Those who stood their ground and spoke no word until morning would gain all the promised treasures. On the other hand, if their mood turned sour, the elves could wish ill fortune on the humans who had interrupted their journey.

In past times many people offered the elves hospitality on New Year's Eve by performing special house cleanings and leaving food and lights burning in an out-of-the-way nook or corner. Some walked about their house three times and announced a welcome to the elves, promising them safe usage of the premises for the evening.

Another bit of old lore claimed that frost that drifted into the house through an open pantry window on this night was especially sweet and that it brought with it the promise of abundance. The only difficulty was that in order to collect this "pantry drift," a housewife had to stay awake all night in a dark pantry with the window open to the stern cold of an Icelandic winter night, while the drift slowly collected in a pot on the floor. Once this task was completed, a design made up of crosses was traced over the pot, which prevented the prosperity from escaping. No statistics exist to tell us how many women took up this icy challenge.

Twelfth Night and Epiphany

The last of the Christmas Lads departs on Epiphany. People hold parties on this day to mark the end of the Christmas season, and some people costume themselves as one of the Christmas Lads or their troll parents. In addition, Icelanders often mark the day with bonfires into which they throw the trash that has accumulated over the holidays.

Further Reading

Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: McClelland and Stewart, 2000. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999. Osmond, Stephen. "Long Night of Dreams: Midwinter Celebrations in Iceland." The World and I 11, 1 (January 1996): 206(12).
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003