Icelandic Language Blog

Gleðileg jól! Posted by on Dec 19, 2016 in Icelandic culture

The nights are dark and full of trolls, there’s Björk singing about how horrifying the Christmas Cat is and grocery stores have an overpowering smell of smoked meat – that’s what the real Christmas spirit is made of, right? Be prepared for the parts of Icelandic Christmas that are not like what you’re used to!

Felices fiestas by Andrés Nieto Porras at Flickr. Photo taken in Iceland!

The beer that’s not beer

Keep in mind one basic rule: you can only buy alcohol in Vinbúðin or bars/restaurants when you’re in Iceland. Whatever you see in grocery stores is either nonalcoholic or not what you assume it is. Jólaöl, Hvítöl etc. all have the confusing -öl at the end, but they’re actually sweet malt soda drinks that may take a while to get used to if they’re not a stable in your home culture. Especially beware anything called malt + appelsín, those are a kind of a really popular, traditional Icelandic thing to drink during Christmas… it’s sweet malt mixed with orange soda. It may take a while to get used to the taste.

No ham or turkey, lamb

Where I’m from – Finland – the main course of a Christmas dinner is ham. Not so in Iceland: here you would traditionally get a smoked leg of lamb (or horse, that’s also a possibility) called hangikjöt. It has a strong salty and smoky flavour and is typically eaten with mashed peas, boiled potatoes, béchamel sauce, and of course there’ll be stacks of laufabrauð, thin, deep-fried disks of deliciousness.

Christmas by Stefán Birgir Stefáns at Flickr. This tree decoration is in the shape of a laufabrauð, a traditional Christmas treat.

Books vs. clothes

Have you already seen the meme that claims that Icelanders give each other books for Christmas and then spend the Christmas night reading? Not entirely true, sorry. While it’s definitely true that Icelanders read lots of books and that books are a really popular present, I’ve never seen or heard of anyone doing the latter part. If anything, a good book is read at a better time, Christmas night is spent socializing.

If you asked an Icelander what a traditional, popular Christmas present would be, they’d probably say an item of clothing instead of a book. The fearsome monster Urðarkötturinn (= cliff cat, the Christmas Cat) kills and eats everyone who didn’t get new clothes for Christmas, so people do their best to keep their friends and family safe from it. There’s even a saying “to go to Christmas Cat” (að fara í jólaköttinn) to explain you didn’t get new clothes.

Jólatré by Guðmundur Bjarni Ólafsson at Flickr.

Christmas trees

What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest is a popular joke. The answer is of course: stand up. Iceland has almost no forests and what trees grow here don’t usually grow very tall. Icelanders prefer their Christmas trees somewhat on the small side, ranging from tabletop size to about 170cm tall going by the selection of trees being sold that I’ve seen so far (although I’m sure taller ones are available as well, they’re just not as common).

Long work days

Like mentioned, new clothes for Christmas is a huge thing over here and that doesn’t only mean presents. Everyone needs to buy something new and fancy, and if you end up in Iceland around this time of the year and are in desperate need of a haircut you might as well forget about it. Hairdressers are booked full and they’re working longer days than usual. In fact all businesses that are somehow tied to Christmas celebrations put in insane amounts of working hours. It’s the biggest money season, so as long as business is going wild you work your fingers to the bone. There’ll be quieter times come January, then you can rest.

Grýla by kim&amy at Flickr. You better watch out, you better not cry…

Survival of the luckiest

Going by old Icelandic Christmas traditions your best present will be getting to keep your life! 😀 A country that spends half of the year in almost absolute darkness tends to grow some frightening stories, and in Iceland these stories for some reason center around the holidays.

First of all, there’s the cat that I already mentioned. The cat’s not your only worry however, as trolls are about as well. Grýla, the mother of the Icelandic Yule Lads, looks for her Christmas dinner and her favourite is small children. Good or bad, doesn’t matter. Her sons run around stealing food and important items, eating candles, slamming doors and peering through windows, and if this is not yet enough just wait for the Christmas night. That’s when elves like to party, and some of them prefer to do this inside human houses. Humans inside the house already? No problem… kill them all.

Of course there are nicer elves as well. They might not outright kill you, unless you’re mean to their children or flirt with their spouse. On the other hand if you’re nice to their children and cold to their flirtatious spouse they might reward you well for it!

Stay safe this Christmas. 😉


The Icelandic blog of Transparent language would like to wish all you lovely readers Happy Holidays!

Christmas Day by Lisa Stevens at Flickr.

Gleðileg jól og farsælt komandi ár!

I’ll end this post on a little bit different note; due to some life changes I’m sad to say I won’t be having the time needed for blogging anymore. Worry not though, the blog will still be here and new Icelandic posts will return next year with a brand new writer. Please give them a warm welcome, and thank you for all the years I’ve had the privilege to write for you people. It’s been absolutely fantastic, thank you so, so much!

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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. Allexxandra:

    I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed reading these posts, and I learn new things with every piece I read. Thank you so much! I am so sad to read that you will be moving on, and I wish you all the best for whatever your future brings. I have been very envious of your life in Iceland – I am taking Icelandic lessons and hope one day I might also live there (or even retire there!)….thank you for everything!
    Happy Christmas! x

  2. Dalila:

    I would like to thank the writer of the Icelandic Blog. I recently found the blog and since then I’ve been enjoying it a lot, learning very much. It is a real shame that he has to leave. However, I wish him very much success and happiness. Thank you for giving us cheerful and interesting blogs.

  3. Cynthia Anderson:

    I’ve been a faithful reader of the blog under your authorship and it has given me so much enjoyment. Thanks for all your good work and I wish you the very best!

  4. Jim E.:

    Thanks so much for all the good stuff to read. I have enjoyed your insight into Iceland and its traditions. I will be happy to welcome the new blogger.

  5. Margaret Terrill:

    Thanks, it’s like getting in touch with friends. Fare the well.

  6. Þórir Pétur:

    Ég verð að seigja að ég hef elskað blogin þín mjög mikið, og alveg síðan að ég fann þau first hef ég biðið spenntur eftir næsta pósti. Mér finnst það mjög leitt að þú sért að fara frá okkur, en mest af öllu er ég bara glaður að þú hafir tekið þér þann tíma að halda þessu uppi svona lengi og gefið okkur svona skemmtileg blog um Ísland.
    Ég mun sakna þín mikið. Þakkar þér fyrir öll blogin sem þú hefur gert fyrir okkur.
    Gleðileg jól og farsælt komandi ár (og öll þau ár sem munu koma eftir það).
    Kveðja frá áðdáendi af þessu blogi og af þínum póstum í því. ♥

  7. Helen:

    Dear Hulda, Thank you for all your articles. When I started to learn Icelandic I was so happy to discover your pleasant and often amusing approach to the language. I’m sorry you’re moving on but I hope it’s for some happy reasons. In any case I wish you a Merry Christmas and all the best for the new year. Gleðileg jól og farsælt komandi ár!

  8. Lynda:

    We’re sorry to see you go, Hulda! You’ve been not only entertaining, but also very instructive – in a humorous way! Good luck with whatever it is you’re going on to do – and Gleðileg jól / Hyvää joulua to you!

  9. Gabi:

    Dear Hulda, hello :
    I start to learn Icelandic because I am fascineted from your beautiful country. I am from Croatia so if you want to know somwthing about my country I am here.
    I am prepare my self and my friends to visit Iceland these summer. I wish you all the best