In a country surrounded by cold ocean, where the winter days are short and nights are long, Iceland has cultivated some Christmas traditions that aren’t shared by most of mainland Europe.
First of all, common to a lot of the cold northern parts of the world, Iceland loves its Christmas lights and leaves them there as long as it possibly can. When the sun doesn’t peep over the horizon until after 10am and vanishes again by 4pm, you want some twinkly lights in the darkness.
Second, my favourite tradition: the jólabókaflóðið, the Christmas book flood. There is a story that says that 10% of all Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime; while it’s true that Iceland has a disproportionate number of writers and about 10% will have something published, it’s not usually anything quite as big as a book. However, the weeks running up to Christmas are the time when all the new books of the year are released and it’s a tradition to receive a book (and a little something tasty) to read in bed on Christmas Eve. This is a tradition I’ve adopted in my house.
Third: Iceland reputedly has “thirteen Santas”. No, it doesn’t. Iceland has something much older and much darker than Santa.
Grýla is a troll/witch who lives in a cave in the lava field and goes looking for naughty children in the run-up to Christmas. In some tales, Grýla is the owner of the Yule Cat, a lovely seasonal cat who allegedly eats any children who don’t receive any new clothes for Christmas. I have a beautiful felted Christmas tree decoration of Grýla and the Cat. My mother doesn’t like her; thinks she’s too scary and likes to hide her around the sides, or preferably the back, of the tree.
The “thirteen Santas” are the Yule Lads, thirteen troll-like creatures, sometimes said to be Grýla’s sons. They come one at a time in the thirteen days before Christmas and they have names like Spoon-Licker, Pot-Scraper and Meat Hook. They sneak around the house, stealing food, licking the spoons, slamming doors and pestering the livestock. They also leave presents in shoes put out on windowsills by Icelandic children – rotten potatoes if they’ve been naughty, yummy edibles if they’ve been good.
In December 2013, I stayed at the Natura Hotel next to Reykjavik Domestic Airport. It’s a very pleasant hotel, originally just a big anonymous machine of a bed-house but now it’s quite a good and delightful hotel I couldn’t afford to stay at without the special deals that occasionally pop up on the likes of booking.com. It has its own spa, storytelling sessions and lends out bus passes for free; it is also visited by the Yule Lads, who leave little decorated bags hanging from the door handle every night. Over the course of my stay, creeping to the door while still half-asleep to see what had been left became a ritual. I had oranges, seeded biscuit fingers and there was always a little note to explain where this had come from and all about today’s particular Yule Lad.
Pre-Christmas offerings from the Yule Lads from when I was there in December 2013. Gifts from (clockwise from top left) Spoon-Licker (15th), Pot-Scraper (16th), Bowl-Licker (17th), Door-Slammer (18th) and Skyr-Gobbler (19th). #travel #iceland #yulelads #Christmas #christmastraditions #xmas #jol #icelandicchristmas
So that’s Christmas in Iceland, from the point of view of a tourist who’s never been allowed by her mother to be there on the big day.