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Icelandic Christmas traditions – I bet you’ve heard of the trolls by now! You might also have heard of the monster cat that devours everyone who doesn’t get at least one new item of clothing for the holidays, that Iceland has 13 “Santas” or more correctly put Yule Lads, mountain trolls that arrive to the towns to harass people and cattle. But what about everyday things, what things suddenly appearing into the daily life would tell an Icelander that Yule is just around the corner?
Darkness and light
Icelanders are Christmas light crazy, some worse than others. The light series boxes are brought out the moment it feels dark enough outside, which is typically around beginning of November although some more eager types start out in October already. Some people are content with just a candle stick light while others go all out, practically wrapping their houses in lights.
Once holidays are over the lights… don’t go anywhere! In Iceland it’s quite common to let them stay for a few months more, which is logical considering how dark the winter days in Iceland are. Lights just make everything look a little bit more cheerful. Most people will have packed them away by March, but I do know a few houses that have their outdoors lights year round and only switch them on and off according to the amount of natural light.
Boxes and boxes of clementines stacked up high is all grocery stores. In Iceland Christmas just isn’t Christmas without clementines; they first appear at the end half of November and then go away quickly after the holidays are over. For the rest of the year finding good quality clementines is actually kind of difficult, but for a few months they’re here and people probably eat so much of them they don’t even care to see them for the rest of the year…
Icelanders LOVE fireworks, I can’t stress this fact enough. Be prepared if you’re planning to own a pet in Iceland, because the New Year fireworks are being “warmed up” in December by both people who sell them and people who buy them. The sellers, notably the voluntary rescue unit Björgunarsveitinn that sells fireworks to fund themselves, like to advertise their wares by staging firework shows. Likewise some people start sending them off early. At first it’ll be just a few occasional booms here and there but it’ll pick up pace the closer to Christmas you get, and the New year and the days before and after it are insanity. I feel bad for dog owners around this time of the year.
Weird round boxes of flat things
These would be a Christmas treat called laufabrauð, “leaf bread”. They’re deep fried, thin discs decorated with all kinds of patterns cut and folded into the dough before frying, that taste absolutely heavenly. I became a leaf bread addict early on after moving here. They’re such a traditional thing that even one of the Yule Lads, Gáttaþefur (= Doorway-Sniffer), takes special interest in them, using his big nose to try to sniff out houses where he might steal some.
Making them is a lot of work however, so many people buy theirs in stores instead. If you ever get a chance to try homemade laufabrauð do so immediately, even though the store-bought ones are already delicious nothing beats fresh home-made ones!
Jólasveinar, the Yule Lads
You’ll see them everywhere from milk carton sides to walls downtown. Once they were so frightening that Iceland banned scaring children with them, their mother Grýla and the mother’s cat Urðarkötturinn by law, but today they’ve calmed down a lot. Now they only cause occasional mischief and also bring children little treats. For this you need to place a shoe on a windowsill where a passing Yule Lad can leave you candy during the night while you’re asleep, or possibly you’ll get a potato instead if you’ve been bad the previous day.
The whole town smells like farts????
Ah. Þorláksmessa, the Mass of St. Thorlac (= the patron saint of Iceland), that’s celebrated on the 23rd December makes the whole Reykjavík smell a bit funny. The typical food for the celebrations is skata, cured skate, that has such a pungent smell that it literally creeps out of the houses where it’s served for dinner. If you eat it the smell also catches on you, and as you walk outside (a typical activity on this day) you’re trailing it with you everywhere. It’s not such as awesome day to those who don’t like the smell of skate! 😀