Icelandic Language Blog

Star signs, Christmas preparations. Posted by on Nov 26, 2012 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

Today, according to the old Norse calendar, begins Ýlir, the second month of winter. It’s the month of Jól (= Yule) and some scholars have suggested that the month either gets its name from the holiday or possibly from old English month names Ærra Géola (= December) and Æfterra Géola (= January). Ýlir always begins on a Monday and on the fifth week of winter, between the 20th and the 27th November. It’s the darkest month of the whole year.

So what are some typical things to do during this month in Iceland?

The darkness can be a little bit overpowering outside of the towns. Photo taken somewhere near Mosfellsbær, looking at the lights of Reykjavík.

You can look at the night sky a lot!

I’m not kidding, this time of the year is excellent for spotting aurora and in general looking at the stars. Buildings are low so their light does not hide the night sky and right now the star viewing season is at its best. In astrology this month is ruled by Bogmaðurinn, the Sagittarius. Here are the rest of the signs.

Stjörnumerkin (= the horoscopes)

Hrútur (= Aries)
Naut (= Taurus)
Tvíburi (= Gemini)
Krabbi (= Crab)
Ljón (= Leo)
Meyja (= Virgo)
Vog (= Libra)
Sporðdreki (= Scorpio)
Bogmaður (= Sagittarius)
Steingeit (= Capricorn)
Vatnsberi (= Aquarius)
Fiskur (= Pisces)

Begin to prepare Yule/Christmas presents – soft parcels are preferred!

In the old days Ýlir was the time of furious knitting. Everyone needed a new item of clothing to survive the Jólahátið (= Christmas holiday): there was a cat monster called Urdarkötturinn walking around on the Christmas day, killing and eating everyone who didn’t receive at least one present of new clothes  for Christmas. Children knew to behave because that monster was not the only threat. A troll woman called Grýla, the mother of the current 13 “Santa Clauses”, the Jólasveinar (= Christmas lads), ate naughty children for dinner.

Dig out ALL the Christmas lights!

Icelanders go all out with the lights and perhaps they have some very good reasons. Electricity is cheap here and the winter nights are quite dark, add to this that Icelanders seem to absolutely love to give the neighborhood a high class light show (I’m not kidding here either: on out street there’s one house with full rainbow-lit front, another that has bought a matching set of star-shaped lights just this year and a third one that likes plastic Santa-shaped lamps) and there you have it. It’s also worth a notice that over here Christmas lights aren’t only for Christmas. They’re put up around this time of the year and left on for the whole dark season. It looks unusual but to me it seems both a cozy and practical an idea. Giving up to the darkness would be depressing but when fighting it, why not fight it with something cute?

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!


  1. John_and_Lucinda:

    Thank you for the wonderful blog.

    We’ve visited Iceland twice (from Denver Colorado) in 2014… and have a serious question about holiday lighting. (We became quite enamored of the large star-shaped lights that hang in so many windows in Reykjavik in the dark winter months.)

    Can you provide a web link please to a company that sells the more traditional yellowish colored (illuminated) stars?

    We are hoping to find a star that is 60 cm tall, approximately. And one that does not have piercing white LED light bulbs.

    Thank you so much in advance.

  2. Pat Svansson:

    What fun finding your blog! We were in Iceland December 2014 and loved the red lights hung around individual windows! Could you tell me, are the lights strung around the window from inside or are they strung outside the building? We came home and tried it ourselves, but didn’t make out too well!! Are there special clips or fasteners to hold them in place so they don’t droop down?
    Thank you so much!

    • hulda:

      @Pat Svansson There’s many ways of hanging them, but one popular style is to attach a long string of lights at the corners of the window on the inside of the building, and let the sides hang loose (or alternatively also attach them to the bottom corners). In our house we can use the blinds to attach our lights, but that of course stops us from ever closing the blinds during the Christmas season… -.-