Christmas is almost here.

Posted on 19. Dec, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history


Heading towards the fourth Advent.

Iceland is expecting Christmas completely decked in white. We had even more snow yesterday and cars were stuck throughout the country, so in case you saw people clad in red pushing them out of the banks (link) those were not Jólasveinar but Björgunarsveitinn, the voluntary rescue units. They don’t give you presents but I bet you’ll still be happy to see them when you need them! Meanwhile we also found out that the Holuhraun volcano – that is still erupting just as strongly as months ago by the way – has taken a festive approach in its lava flow (link).

jol1423Hátíð fer að höndum ein… a beautiful song that’s currently very appropriate (link). It’s also an interesting example of how, once you’ve studied the grammar for years and think you got it it still manages to sneak up behind you. You see:

“Hátíð    fer að höndum    ein.”

Lit. transl. “Celebration/Holiday   goes at hands   one.”

Actual transl. “The Holiday is almost at hand.”

Why? Because the pronoun “einn/ein/eitt” can occasionally be used as an article “the” or “that particular one”. As a confusing additional feature, in poetic Icelandic the word order can be jumbled up almost any which way as long as the conjugation is correct, so although it’s not grammatically correct to throw “ein” to the end (it should be “hátíð ein…”), in a song it’s quite alright. :D

jol1424And here you may see… our Christmas tree and a grill, both waiting for their proper seasons. Well, they’re somewhere under there anyway. It’s becoming a futile task to clear the snow off of the balcony when new piles of it fall in almost daily. The snow ploughs are hard at work too, and like this video reminds you it’s good to let them do their job if you can (although the car owner is heard saying he simply cannot move the car because of all the snow)*.

* I’m going to spoil the fun a little though – the video is staged (link). :D

jol1415If I was asked what’s the most prominent Icelandic Christmas feature, the one that truly heralds the celebration, I would have to go for the decorative lights in and outside of the houses.  After a long, dark and miserable autumn they suddenly pop up everywhere. Some people go quite crazy with them, lighting up the whole house with huge spotlights, creating rainbow stripes along their walls, covering every possible shelf-like structure in Christmas statues with lights inside, just generally throwing on enough lights to light a small city… and they’ll stay on long after Christmas. Some people don’t even get rid of the obvious Holiday items such as the Santa Claus or Christmas angel lamps. Winter is so long and dark that all those lights serve a purpose, lighting the otherwise depressing season.

This is not a new tradition of course. Candles used to serve the same purpose for the Holiday and Icelandic children were often given one as a Christmas present, which is why they often appear in fairy tales regarding Christmas. Candles were a valuable gift back in the day, so a woman giving one to elf children was indeed being kind.

jol1420Another thing would be the Jólasveinar, Yule Lads. Here they are on our Christmas curtain in full mischief, several carrying stolen goods with them – can you recognize them all? The Christmas Calendar will help you out (and don’t forget it’s still going to run several days more, come and meet the Christmas creatures big and small, strange and scary, each day a few new ones).


The Icelandic blog of Transparent Language and Hulda wish you all Happy Holidays!

Gleðileg jól og farsælt komandi ár!

Icelandic Christmas calendar

Posted on 11. Dec, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history

A Yule troll abode I found downtown. Thankfully no one was home.

Welcome to count the days with the Icelandic blog, dear readers – I’m going to follow the Icelandic tradition of Christmas calendar in which the count-down does not begin on the 1st Dec but the night before the 12th.  There will be a new part added to this post every day, so stay tuned!

Today it’s…

21Gluggagægir (= Window-Peeper) is again one of the scary type of Jólasveinar. In old pictures he’s often seen peeping through a window while children inside the room cower in fear, trying to hide from him. The lore says he’s looking for things to steal but never explains exactly what it is that he’d take if he gets a chance. I guess it’s good to keep in mind that at his origin he, too, was a troll-son of a child-eating mother.


Grýla herself and her third husband Leppalúði. He seems quite useless and only waits for her to return from her hunting trips, but at least she’s not eaten him yet (as she did with at least one previous husband).


jol1365The amount of Jólasveinar currently bothering people: 10/13.


The first Jólasveinn (= Yule lad) is already wearing his traveling coat and it’s high time to get prepared for what’s to come. Children are putting their shoes on the window sill in hopes that there’ll be candy in them if they’ve been nice. If they’ve been bad they’ll get a potato, a threat only overcome by a friend of mine who absolutely loved potatoes as a child. :D

Nowadays the Jólasveinar are harmless, but at their origin they were actually quite scary. Their mother Grýla is an ogress who likes to steal children for her dinner, naughty or nice has no effect on her appetite and she has eaten at least one of her previous husbands as well. Some old stories portray the Jólasveinar as being her accomplishes, helping her find out where the children live while also damaging the farms and their livestock. In the year 1746 people were banned from scaring their children with Grýla and her family. There’s been some attempts at her life but even after being declared dead a few times she’s somehow still around…

No doubt there’ll be curious foot prints in the fresh snow under the windows very shortly if the storms don’t wipe them away too soon. Have a look at pleasant Icelandic December breeze here and here.


Good morning, hopefully you slept well! Last night Stekkjarstaur (= Sheep-Cote Clod) was moving around and you can expect him to keep going for the following 13 days. He’s said to harass sheep, wishing to drink their milk, but that his two peg-legs make moving difficult for him and therefore he has trouble catching the animals.

Not scary? Well, consider this: in old Icelandic houses the sheep pens could be connected to the main house*… so you wake up at night to a weird, rhythmic knocking sound and your pets are going absolutely mad, as if they’re afraid of whatever’s making the sound. Get’s you into the holiday mood right away! :D

Stekkjarstaur is one of the oldest known Yule Lads. At his origin he was simply mentioned as being “einn af Grýlu hyski og grimmur við unga sveina” (= one of Grýla’s family and cruel to small children) though, not just a sheep-bullying troll son.

* you’ll see a corridor leading to the sheep pens in this entry and also how dark it used to be in the turf houses, which no doubt gave some edge to all scary Christmas stories!


On the night of the 13th arrives the second Jólasveinn Giljagaur. His name is usually translated as Gully Gawk, and along with Stekkjarstaur he’s one of the two oldest known Jólasveinar. Originally he wasn’t Grýla’s child at all but her brother, so we can probably assume his bad behaviour has since toned down a bit. Grýla herself may also be somewhat older than she seems: this article compares her to the Scottish Cail­leach Beur and the Irish Cail­leach Bhé­ara.

As for Giljagaur, just like his name suggests he likes to hide in gullies in hopes to steal milk, if a way to the cows is clear for even a moment. Nowadays as cows are harder to come by he might be raiding the fridge instead!


The third to arrive is called Stúfur, Stubby. As his name suggests he’s really short, and his preferred thing to steal are pots and pans with food burned to the bottom that have not been washed in time.

There are actually more than just 13 Jólasveinar. Most of them are so local that even Icelanders haven’t heard of them all, and in some areas like the east coast they don’t come from the mountains but from the sea. There are even some female ones such as Flotnös (= Fat Nose) and Flotsokka (= Fat Sock); the first steals fat to stuff her nose with it (I have no idea why) the second takes socks that have not been finished by Christmas and rubs grease on them.

jol1371Some jokes don’t translate all that well. :D The Icelandic one goes “What’s Stúfur’s favourite neighbourhood? Smáíbúðahverfið (a real neighbourhood in Reykjavík, but the name can also be read as ‘small apartment area’)”


Þvörusleikir (= Spoon licker) is here! The English translation to his name is a little bit misleading – he doesn’t steal just any spoons, he wants those old fashioned, large, wooden ones used to stir a pot, but he does lick them. This seems to be his only source of food so he’s usually shown as being very thin and malnourished.

As a funny piece of news, one of the Jólasveinar got fined yesterday (link)! It naturally made some headlines, although no one seems to know which one of them it was. Maybe it’s a whole new Yule Lad who specializes in parking illegally?


Þottaskefill (= Pot-scraper) follows his older brother, but instead of spoons he wants any pots or pans that have food burned to the bottom and have not been washed. He’s occasionally known by the name Pottasleikir (= Pot-licker) as well.

Among the lesser-known Jólasveinar there are some that are far worse than these food thieves though – imagine Lungnaslettir, if you like. His name means Lung Splatter and his description sounds like something straight out of a horror movie: his chest is open and the lungs are outside. His little Christmas joke? Trying to catch children and beat them with his lungs!


Yesterday’s Yule Lad brought us quite a storm (link)! Let’s hope Askasleikir (= Bowl-Licker) arrives with better weather.

I’ve always found Askasleikir among the creepiest Jólasveinar. He hides under beds and waits for someone to put down their askur, a lidded bowl for food (link)*, and steals it in a flash. This is probably a cautionary part because putting the bowl on the floor instead of a shelf was bad manners, yet there’s something very upsettling at the thought of something under my bed keeping an eye on me, ready to jump any moment…

*For the reader who was interested in these bowls: I tried to see if it were possible to buy askar, but alas they’re so old fashioned that the only way of getting one is by commission. Small, souvenir type of toys do exist (link).


Now we’re getting to the other scary ones: Hurðaskellir (= Door-Slammer) is guaranteed to give you a jump or two in the following days by suddenly slamming any doors that are left open. Some say he’ll not only do this to open doors but to closed ones as well, and that his favourite time for mischief is at night after everyone’s gone to bed.

Another, lesser known Jólasveinn is Reykjarsvelgur (= Smoke-Swallower). He sits on top of houses and gulps down the smoke coming out, especially if meat is being smoked. Then he goes to catch a passer-by and burps the smoke in their face. :D


Skyr is delicious, and alas the next Jólasveinn is very aware of this: Skyrgámur (= Skyr-Gobbler) loves to eat skyr and tries to steal all he can.

Among the lesser-known Jólasveinar there are some really curious names that I’ve not managed to get a proper explanation for, such as Litlipungur (= Small Testicles), Flórsleikir (= Dung channel licker) and Baggalútur (= Small boy). The last one is also a name of a band by the way, you can find their Christmas songs here.


Bjúgnakrækir (= Sausage-Swiper) arrived last night. Now’s the time to keep an eye on the ceiling and any possible sausages around, especially the smoked kind because those are his favourite. Bjúgnakrækir likes to hide in the rafters, so now you can expect food thieves literally from floor to ceiling. Askasleikir will be under the bed, Stúfur, Þvörusleikir, Pottaskefill and Skyrgámur are sneaking around the kitchen, and now the danger’s also above.

Last week the newspapers have occasionally posted a very specific type of news: lost Christmas presents. Here the University of Iceland is trying to find an owner to a parcel simply titled “til mömmu” (= to mum).



Jólin að koma!

Posted on 04. Dec, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

Gleðileg jólin by Elín Guðmundsdóttir on

Christmas is on its way! Without further ado, let’s get into the spirit of Icelandic Christmas 2014 – but first some sad news.

The present that was blown away

“Góður hluti af efri hluta trésins brotnaði af og stjarnan hékk í miðju trénu.” (= A large part of the lower part of the tree was broken off and the star hung at the middle of the tree.)

We began the month with a bang… or should I say a storm. It was the strongest one in 15 years they say, and while there were no casualties the damage is still being repaired. Alas, some things cannot be fixed by any means like the Oslo Christmas tree that was torn to shreds.

Oslo Christmas tree? Due to the fact that Iceland is somewhat lacking in trees the big brother rushes in to help every year.* The tree’s arrival is a much awaited part of Christmas preparations and people gather around to watch its lights being lit on the 1st Advent every year. This year the whole show had to be postponed because of the storm and afterwards… well, there was very little of the tree left. See for yourself here.

Thankfully a local tree was eventually found to replace the Oslo tree, so although it was sad to lose the Norwegian gift Christmas is not ruined!

*Even though this is not even the first time the tree is destroyed; during the Kitchenware revolution protesters actually burned it…


Christmas is not Christmas if…

…your hairstyle stays the same, say the Icelandic ladies. Hairdressers are soon booked full and will put extra hours to their days to cater to as many customers as are in desperate need of a new hairstyle. The Christmas dinner is a family gathering after all and one must look her ultimate best, which means a new dress and a whole new look. I’m not even kidding here, it’s the busiest time of the year for the local hairdressers and indeed I seem to see many people entirely changed come New Year.

As a funny detail a friend of mine wanted to have her hair cut earlier this week and the hairdresser tried to talk her out of it. “Christmas is a whole month away! It’s going to grow out and that’ll be a catastrophe because no one will have time to fix it for the big day!” It was only after she assured her she was going to fly back home for the holidays anyway that the hairdresser relented.

The merriest Christmas lights

Icelanders take Christmas lights seriously… with a small exception to the ones lining Snorrabraut, likely Akureyri (link). I’m trying to hold myself back here with all the stupid jokes that are popping into my mind and I’m almost losing the fight! That said, we should at least get matching ones for the Snorrabraut in Reykjavík – the Phallological Museum that’s located just around the corner to our Snorrabraut would probably appreciate them greatly. :D

Laufabrauð by Brian Suda on I love your design, Brian!

Time to bake

This is the time when you’re most likely to come across all kinds of typical Icelandic bakery products. My own favourite would have to be laufabrauð, leaf bread: thin, crispy, delicate spheres like so many edible doilies. Er. That may not have sounded very delicious but please give them a chance if you ever come across them.

Or perhaps you’d like to make some yourself? You can find a recipe and instructions here.

By the way, did you know that one reason why certain Icelandic recipes have survived to this day is because of Canadians? More specifically speaking West-Icelanders, as they’re called here in Iceland, the people whose forebears emigrated from Iceland. Honouring their previous home they hung onto every bit of its culture that they had, recipes for example. Have a look at one such Christmas cake – the Randalín (= stripy one) here.


Hulda recommendshulda078

Christmas needs Christmas music, and as a choir singer I’ve got my own favourites clear:

Það á að gefa barnum brauð (= Children must be given bread) performed here by the Hamrahlíð choir (link). Listen for the words “Nú er hún gamla Grýla dauð” – “Now the old Grýla is dead”. If you know who she is you know this is the best news you could have all Christmas. Lyrics here.

Hátíð fer að höndum ein (= a holiday is coming) performed beautifully by Graduale Nobili (link). Lyrics here.

Heyr himna smiður (= Hear heavenly creator) – you’ve not forgotten this one, have you? Thought so! The lyrics for this truly beautiful song are here included underneath.

Jólakötturinn (= the Christmas cat), not a choir piece, performed here by Ragnheiður Gröndal. Lyrics here with Björk’s version of the song included – now the question is which one sung it creepiest?

Í heitri þökk (= with warm thanks/in warm thankfulness) performed by the University Choir (link). My own personal favourite for several reasons!