Iceland during Christmas and New Year’s Eve is a wonderful time of glowing candles, festive music and delicious meals. It is also a time set aside for families to enjoy traditions together. This means that many businesses and restaurants are closed for few days during the holidays to let employees be with their families. Here is a brief description of what goes on during the season to help you plan your trip so that you, too, can celebrate Christmas in Iceland!
CHRISTMAS ACTIVITIES AND CELEBRATIONS
Dec 12 – 22- (Shops open with long hours) Reykjavík is very festive these days, especially in the evenings when shops stay open late. You may enjoy strolling downtown. It’s lively with decorations, light displays and musical street entertainment. These days are also great for trying the popular Christmas smorgåsbord buffets (jólahlaðborð) offered at various restaurants. While browsing the streets on a crisp winter day you might also enjoy stopping at a café to warm up with a glass of jólaglögg (a hot drink made with red wine, fruit juice, spices and raisins) served with ginger cookies.
Starting from the evening of December 11, Icelandic children lay their shoes in the window in their rooms. Legend has it that, through Dec 23, one of the thirteen Christmas Lads will come into the town each evening to leave a small gift in good children’s shoes. (Naughty children have to be content with a cold potato.) When all of the Christmas Lads have visited, then it is time to start the actual Christmas celebrations.
Dec. 23- (Shops open with long hours) This is St. Þórlákur’s Day, named after Iceland’s patron saint. It’s perhaps more famous for being the busiest shopping day of the year as people happily bustle with last-minute preparations and with cleaning the house for the festivities. It is also traditional to eat skate (a type of ray fish) and potatoes. This lye-preserved fish smells strong while cooking, but it tastes delicious. If you are curious, some restaurants sell St. Þórlákur´s Day dinners on Dec. 23. Regardless of your culinary tastes, today is a fantastic day to enjoy the festivities of Christmas downtown.
Dec. 24- (Shops close at noon) This is the most important day of the Christmas season, and it is meant to be a day for families. Stores and restaurants are open during the morning for last minute shopping but close at noon. During the day, families visit cemeteries to lay flowers and candles on the graves of beloved relatives. Families decorate their home, set up the Christmas tree and put out the wrapped presents. Through the afternoon, the feast is prepared, everyone dresses in fine clothes, and the children get more and more excited as evening approaches.
The celebrations start at 6:00pm, when the church bells ring to usher in Christmas. Families begin the evening with dinner together. This is traditionally roast rjúpa (ptarmigan, or Arctic grouse) with cream sauce (though sometimes it is roast lamb or pork), potatoes browned in caramel, pickled red cabbage and a special fried pastry called laufabrauð (leaf bread), which is often made by the children. With dinner, adults drink wine or Christmas Beer and children drink a special beverage made with orange soda and malted extract. Desert is a rich, warm pudding made with cream, rice, raisins and sugar. Hidden in the pudding is one almond. The person who finds the almond in his or her serving gets a special present.
After dinner, the family opens the presents under the tree. Since the Christmas Lads have already visited the children, the presents opened tonight are gifts from family and friends. It is a tradition that every child gets at least one new clothing item for Christmas to keep away the wicked Christmas Cat.After presents are open, children often dance around the Christmas tree, Later in the evening, some families go to midnight church services, which feature Iceland’s beautiful version of choral music.
While you may not have an Icelandic family to celebrate with, several hotel restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and Icelandic Christmas food is often on the menu. If your hotel room has a radio, put it on and enjoy lovely Christmas songs from Iceland. Perhaps you will want to go to a midnight church service at a Lutheran church or the Catholic Cathedral. Visitors often enjoy the beautiful music at these services, and some churches (such as Hallgrimskirkja) have part of the service in English. If attending midnight mass, it is a good idea to arrive early because the churches get very full.
Dec 25- (Shops closed) Christmas Day is a peaceful time for going to church and relaxing at home. As in many countries families enjoy a quiet day of listening to Christmas music on the radio and calling relatives abroad. Tonight people invite over close relatives and enjoy the traditional Christmas dinner. This consists of hangikjöt (smoked lamb, served cold), boiled potatoes in a sweet cream sauce, cold peas, pickled red cabbage, laufabrauð and rice pudding.
Dec 26- (Shops closed) Shops are also closed on this day, which is reserved for extended family and friends to celebrate and give gifts, often at large evening gatherings. The “traditional” food eaten on this day is, not surprisingly, leftovers 🙂
Dec 27- 30 (Shops open) Families and friends continue to visit and have parties through the remaining days of December, but shops are open for business again on Dec. 27, 2003.
NEW YEAR’S EVE ACTIVITIES
Dec 31- (Shops close at noon) Starting today, the mood changes over from Christmas to Gamlárskvöld (New Year’s Eve) celebrations. Shops close around noon so that people can get themselves ready for elegant New Year’s parties with extended family and friends. Festivities usually start around 7:00 pm with a fancy dinner at a relative’s home. (Some organizations will arrange for an evening at a fine restaurant for members and their families, so this is why some restaurants may close early) . Brenna bonfires start appearing in various places around Reykajvík after dark.. The bonfires are perhaps the oldest holiday tradition in Iceland, dating back to the Middle Ages. People put warm coats over their fine clothes and head over to the nearest bonfire to meet with friends, sing songs and share memories of the year.
Around 10:30pm, the streets start to empty as people head inside to watch the popular Áramótaskaup show on TV. This is an amusing show that pokes fun of things that happened in Iceland over the year. At 11:30pm people head outside again to get the fireworks ready for midnight! Iceland does not have the restrictions on fireworks that other countries have, so families shoot their own fireworks. With so many people shooting lots of fireworks at the same time the result is one of the world’s most spectacular fireworks displays!
After midnight, the nightclubs and pubs are open for business, and Reykjavik has one of the most energetic New Year’s nightlife in the world, with dancing and celebrating going well into the morning. For those who love nightlife, this is THE night to be in Reykjavík.If you would like to join the festivities, there are some restaurants open for business earlier in the evening. The bonfires are open to everyone and are interesting to see. Ask at the hotel or tourism information center about the best places to go for viewing the brenna brenna and fireworks. The nightclubs will open after the fireworks, and of course you can join in on these celebrations, too!
Jan 1- (Shops closed) This is a quiet day, as people rest after the celebrations. In the afternoon family and friends may visit each other to wish a Happy New Year, and to clean up the used fireworks from the yard and streets. Dinner is usually leftovers, and people get ready to start a new year when the shops open on Jan. 2. After this, the shops are open for the rest of the holiday season.
Several restaurants will be open later in the day, and nigthclubs will be open as usual. During the day, many day tours will be operating. Check with your hotel to see what is available.
Jan 2- (Retail Shops closed). While it is business as usual for many companies in Iceland, retail shops may be closed today for vörutalning (counting stock). If you happen to be in Iceland in the next few days, keep your eyes open for the sales in January. (The word “útsala” means “sale” in Icelandic).
WHAT COMES AFTER
Jan. 6– (Shops open) This is also the day the Christmas decorations come down. If you happen to be in Iceland on this night, you might glimpse the Þrettándinn (Thirteenth Night) Celebrations. The Thirteen Christmas Lads have been going back one by one since Christmas. The last one leaves tonight. Children dress in colorful costumes and gather together around bonfires to dance, sing and bid Christmas farewell until next year.
After this, it’s only 352 days until Christmas comes again, but the Icelanders are prepared for this. They have filled their winter days with many celebrations through Easter, and perhaps you will come to Iceland again to take part in those as well!