If you’re thinking about spending Christmas in Iceland, it’s important to know a few things. Heading abroad for the holidays is a really special way to ring in the season. From Icelandic traditions like the Yule Lads to festive Christmas foods like hákarl (fermented shark) and hangikjöt (cured, boiled meat), there are lots of new experiences to be had in Iceland during December. They celebrate Christmas with a bang in Iceland and the holidays are one of the best times to visit the country. There are also plenty of fun family activities both inside and outside of the home. Christmas markets, ice skating, and more await you in Iceland this month.

Go skating at an outdoor rink in Reykjavik and enjoy Christmas decorations

Icelandic Christmas Traditions

Iceland has a few unique Christmas traditions such as the 13 days of Christmas with their Yule Lads. These funny characters with even funnier names are perhaps one of the more charming aspects of Iceland at Christmas. But before we get to that, let’s cover one the basics. How do they say Merry Christmas in Iceland? To say Merry Christmas (or the British version, Happy Christmas) in Icelandic, you say “Gleðileg jól”. Think of “jól” as being similar to “yule” as in Yuletide. You’re essentially saying “Happy Yule” to Icelanders.

Icelandic Christmas celebrations and the Yule season originally had to do with marking the winter solstice and days slowly getting longer. Yule actually includes New Year celebrations as well. When Iceland became a Christian nation, we also began celebrating Christmas traditions. People buy presents for each other, exchange gifts, spend time with friends and family, and eat special foods. These are the most important days throughout the entire Yule season.

Important Days During Iceland’s Yule Season

December 23rd: Þorláksmessa – St. Thorlakur’s Day

St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson (Heilagur Þorlákur Þórhallsson) is the patron saint of Iceland. He was the Bishop of Skálholt and died on December 23rd. We usually eat fermented skate (hákarl) and decorate our Christmas trees on this day.

December 24th: Aðfangadagur – Christmas Eve (Yule Eve)

Icelandic children look forward to Yule Eve all year long. They get to open their presents after dinner. Celebrations start at 6 pm, as this was traditionally when a new day began.

December 25th: Jóladagur – Christmas Day (Yule Day)

After spending the previous evening with close family, Icelanders typically spend Jóladagur with extended family. The main meal on this day is hangikjöt, a leg of roast lamb or sometimes boiled horse meat. Another option is Rjúpa, a delicious game bird. These are usually accompanied by Laufabrauð’ or leaf bread, another Christmas specialty. Families can get quite creative with the patterns they cut into the fried dough.

Hangikjöt is a favorite traditional Christmas food in Iceland

December 26th: Annar Jóladagur – Boxing Day

Yet another day of eating and visiting friends and family! I love the holidays in Iceland! Yule Eve and Yule Day are traditionally more stoic (at least in public), but on Boxing Day the party spills out onto the street! You might see people celebrating by dancing out in public.

December 31st & January 1st: Gamlárskvöld and Nýársdagur – New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

Lots of magic happens on this night. It’s one of the most important of the year. Elves change houses, cows acquire the ability to speak, seals become human, and the dead come back to life. Come to Iceland for New Year’s Eve if you dare! There are bonfires and huge fireworks displays on Gamlárskvöld. We call it “sprengja út árið” in Icelandic. It means “blowing out the year”.

January 6th: Þrettándinn – Epiphany

We close out the Yule season with one last day of bonfires and elfin dancing. The Yule has come to an end, but next year there will be more magic and celebrations.

Iceland’s Christmas Yule Lads

Another one of my favorite Christmas traditions in Iceland is the Yule Lads (Jólasveinarnir). These merry mischief makers originally began as the offspring of child-eating ogres but over time have morphed in something slightly less terrifying (unless you are a naughty boy or girl). Their names always seem to garner a chuckle from anyone seeing them for the first time. So who are Iceland’s Yule Lads?

Stekkjarstaur – Gimpy
Giljagaur – Gully Imp
Stúfur – Itty Bitty or Stubby
Þvörusleikir – Pot Scraper
Pottasleikir – Pot Licker
Askasleikir – Bowl Licker
Hurðaskellir – Door Slammer
Skyrgámur – Skyr Gobbler (Skyr is a typical Icelandic yogurt)
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Snatcher
Gluggagægir – Window Peeper
GáttaÞefur – Doorway Sniffer
Ketkrókur – Meat Hooker
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar

Some of these fellows are just fine by me. Gimpy and Stubby can’t help it if they’re a bit gimpy or stubby. But others are downright rude! I would have a thing or two to say if I ever caught Door Slammer or Sausage Snatcher wreaking havoc in my kitchen. And that Skyr Gobbler! He’d better leave my Skyr alone! The same goes for Bowl Licker. If anyone’s licking a bowl in my house, it’s going to be me! And let’s be honest, Window Peeper and Doorway Sniffer are probably taking part in illegal activity. Keep your curtains drawn in Iceland at Christmas!

Iceland's 13 naughty Yule Lads are part of the 13 days of Christmas
Image source: iceland.is

Christmas Activities in Iceland

So what is there to do in Iceland at Christmas? Well, in addition to fending off attacks on your food from Skyr Gobbler and Sausage Snatcher, you can also partake in outdoor activities like exploring Christmas markets or taking the kids ice skating on Reykjavik’s pond in the city center. Adrenaline junkies can hike a glacier or even go snowmobiling. The winter is a great time to come to Iceland, and there’s plenty to see and do.

Christmas in Iceland – What to Expect

If you come to Iceland, you are guaranteed to have a White Christmas. Cities and towns are blanketed with snow, and the streets are illuminated with Christmas lights. It’s a truly magical time. Not to mention the Aurora Borealis dancing in the nighttime sky. Starting off (or ending) your Iceland road trip just in time for the holidays is something you won’t soon forget. Come experience a winter wonderland and enjoy Iceland this Christmas.

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