How do you celebrate Christmas on the edge of the Arctic region, in a season when the sun provides less than 5 hours of daylight? The most obvious answer is: light up your home! Icelanders put a great emphasis on Christmas lights, lavishly decorating their habitats and gardens in early December. The multi-colored parade is usually kept running well into the new year.
Candles used to be the only form of decoration available to the average Icelander and the tallow candles burning brightly at Christmastime were for special occasions only. The light they provided invoked a festive spirit, in addition to making the merciless winter more bearable. Beginning in the 19th century, many children would receive a candle as a Christmas gift and it’s probably why Kertasníkir (Candle Beggar), one of the thirteen naughty Yule-Lads, makes his way to town on the 24th of December.
In the old days, a message between two people would take a while to reach its destination across the unpaved wilderness. With the establishment of the national radio in 1930, Icelanders gained a common means of communication. Soon, the reading of Christmas greetings on the airwaves- meant for relatives far from home- became a cultural tradition. To this day, almost the entire radio program of December 23 is taken up by holiday greetings.
On December 23rd, or Þorláksmessa in honor of the 12th-century saint Þorlákur helgi, many feast on fermented skate. This traditional dish has a pungent odor that has real staying power in any space it’s cooked in- and in every single item of clothing the skate-consumers are wearing! Eating meat is traditional at Christmastime in Iceland, but the fish meal on the day before Christmas remains a tradition from the time when people fasted during the advent. No meat would be consumed before the clock struck six on the 24th of December, ringing in the yuletide.
Another uniquely Icelandic Christmas tradition is the thin and crunchy flatbread known as laufabrauð (also known as leaf bread, named after the look of the classic food). Families come together to cut time-consuming decorative patterns into homemade bread, sometimes forgetting to make holes throughout the surface with a fork before frying, in which case, all is lost. Laufabrauð is an essential ingredient of many families’ Christmas dinner.
And then there’s the matter of clothing. It used to be customary for every workman on a farm to receive a piece of new clothing at Christmastime, in part as a reward for the punishing work of the weeks before Christmas, but also in part to hold the jólaköttur (The Yule Cat) at bay, the mythical beast who was said to eat those who had nothing new to wear for Christmas Eve. How terrifying!
Where does the idea of a weird creature like the Yule Cat come from? Well, spend a night in an isolated turfhouse in the middle of winter and try not to personify the strange noises you hear, to imagine creatures populating the darkness. Then you will understand how the Yule Cat and all its cohort sprang into existence: the ogress Grýla, her filthy husband Leppalúði, and their cheeky little Yule Lads slamming doors and stealing candles. They come alive in the darkness.
There’s no surprise that with the arrival of modern well-lit concrete homes, all these creatures have become tamer and friendlier. Instead of stealing and wreaking havoc, the Yule Lads are now in the habit of leaving goodies in children’s shoes.
In the darkest days of the year, you want all the light you can get. The substitution of candles for electricity has taken us from the tiny glow of a candle to the multi-colored Christmas light extravaganza we see today. At 66 degrees north, people want Christmas to be a celebration of light.
The Oslo Christmastree at Austurvöllur, Reykjavik. Photo credit: Visit Reykjavík/Ragnar Th.
Read more about the Icelandic Yule Lads.
Text: Óskar Völundarson