Icelandic Language Blog

8 Icelandic Christmas facts. Posted by on Dec 24, 2015 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history


Felices fiestas by Andrés Nieto Porras at Flickr. Photo taken at Laugarás, Iceland.

Greetings from snowy Reykjavík! It’s almost time for Christmas here, so let’s have a look at some really Icelandic Christmas -related traditions.

Work hard

It’s not unusual at all that an Icelander would work on the 24th. Over here a Christmas break from work is almost unheard-of, unlike my previous home country Finland that enjoys lots of free time at Christmas. It’s not just grocery stores, hospitals, emergency workers etc. either but any shop may be open today, although some do a shorter day so their workers can have some time to get ready for Christmas dinner.

Look good

The week before Christmas is total madness at hair salons. Everyone wants a new style for Christmas, naturally right before the festivities begin because what’s the point if the new style isn’t fresh and sharp for the Christmas dinner? Hair stylists do long days these times. Likewise everyone obviously needs a new set of clothes.

urdarköttur048Stay alive

Since I mentioned new clothes I better stress their importance in another situation: if you don’t get a new item of clothing for Christmas the monstrous pet cat of ogress Grýla, Urðarkötturinn, will eat you. There’s even a saying that goes “að fara í jólaköttinn” (lit. transl. “to go in Christmas Cat”) that refers to not having a new piece of clothing for Christmas, thus becoming the next meal.

No really, stay alive

Yes… that cat is indeed owned by an ogress whose favourite meal is little children. Traditionally speaking it doesn’t even matter if you’re good or bad because she’ll have her dinner anyway. She has a husband (her third one, she apparently ate the two first ones) called Leppalúði, a useless troll man who at least seems to be mostly harmless.

jolasveinn038Stay safe

That’s not the end of her family giving humankind all kinds of trouble though. Since the 12th December Grýla’s sons, the Jólasveinar (= Yule Lads) have been arriving one by one, each looking to manage their own trademark mischief. It might be stealing food, scaring household animals, slamming doors or just creepily peering through windows in search of things to steal, and tonight all 13 of them have arrived. You better watch out…

It’s not all bad though

Since their arrival each Yule Lad has been leaving children presents! Each night, starting from 12th December, Icelandic children put their shoe on the window sill for the night. If they’ve been good they’ll receive a little present or candy, if they’ve been bad there’ll only be a potato.


Laufabrauð by Brian Suda at Flickr.

Christmas food

Iceland wouldn’t be Iceland if the Christmas table didn’t have sheep in some form, often in many. Smoked lamb is in particular favoured, which actually stems from the fact that although freshly slaughtered meat used to be considered the best, few farmers could actually afford to kill an animal just for Christmas dinner. Smoked meat was therefore a good second option.

Other specifically Icelandic things would be skata (= skate) on Þorláksmessa (= St. Thorlak’s Mass) on the 23rd of December. It’s often added to lists of “worst Icelandic foods” because it’s fermented and therefore really an acquired taste. It has a strong odour, just going outside yesterday smelled like fermented fish everywhere…

Citrus fruit, especially clementines, are such a stable that you’ll find boxes of them stacked high in every grocery store at this time of the year. Fruit were a rarity in times past, expensive and only available for Christmas due to importing costs, but although times have changed they’re still a tradition. Even I’ve learned to think that Christmas isn’t really Christmas-sy without a box of clementines.

Then there’s my own personal favourite, laufabrauð (= leaf bread). It’s a wafer thin bakery product, deep fried and decorated in lace-like patterns, beautiful to look at and absolutely delicious! In the times past when Iceland was Denmark’s colony it suffered massively from Denmark’s trade monopoly, making f.ex. imported grain really expensive and out of the reach of common people (Iceland itself being not suited for growing grain). Therefore such rarities as bread were really festive food, and baking laufabrauð meant you got lots of crispy goodness out of a relatively small amount of flour.


Christmas house by Stefán Birgir Stefáns at Flickr.

Christmas music

Icelandic Christmas music is something else! In one song only you can get from the fact that children should be given bread every Christmas to a happy note that the ogress Grýla is dead, yay, rare delicacies and less chance of dying in a horrible way is what a really merry Icelandic Christmas is made of! 😀 Here’s a list of my personal favourites:

Það á að gefa börnum brauð (= Children must be given bread) here.

Grýlukvæði (= Grýla-Poem) here.

Jólakötturinn (= The Christmas Cat) here.

Bráðum koma blessuð jólin (= Soon comes the blessed Christmas) here.

Snjókorn falla (= Snowflakes are falling) here.

Skreytum hús með greinum grænum here – yes, this one is not Icelandic of origin but Welsh and should be well-known by all. It’s a real tongue-twister to sing though, see if you can keep up with the music. 😀

Skreytum hús með greinum grænum
Gleði ríkja skal í bænum
Tendrum senn á trénu bjarta
Tendrum ljós í hverju hjarta

Ungir gamlir allir syngja
Engar sorgir hugann þyngja
Jólabjöllur blíðar kalla
Boða frið um veröld alla

Ooor if you’d like a whole collection fo newer Icelandic Christmas songs I warmly recommend these playlists here and here!


Although this little book is really old and battered and has clearly seen some Christmas dinners it’s what really brings Christmas mood to me. With the first page I’d like to wish all the readers of Transparent Language’s Icelandic blog

~Gleðileg Jól!~

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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. Kenjpd / Ken Doran:

    Þakka þér fyrir, Gleðileg Jól. Mér finnst gaman að lesa bloggið þitt.
    Ken Doran