13 weird facts about Christmas in Iceland
Christmas is here! Who doesn‘t love Christmas? It‘s a time of family, happiness, faith (for some), and gifts. And with Christmas come traditions, some fun, some weird, some fun and weird, and every country has their own thing. Except if they don‘t celebrate Christmas, but that‘s besides the point. Here are 13 Icelandic Christmas facts and traditions.
Iceland has been Christian since the year 1000 (or 999, we‘re not completely sure)
Around the turn of the millennium there was a lot of conflict between the old Norse faith and the new Christian faith. People were scared this would lead to a full-blown war so it became one of the main topics of the Althing, the old parliament. At the Althing it was decided that the country would become Christian, but that you could worship the pagan gods in secret. So Icelanders have had a lot of time to develop Christmas traditions.
13 formerly human-eating santa clauses will break through your window to give children presents
Originally they were trolls that were said to eat naughty children. In other countries children get coal for Christmas if they’re naughty. In Iceland they get eaten. The santa clauses are nice now though. If a child puts his or her shoe in the windowsill a santa clause will visit, starting from the 12th of December, and leave a small gift. They all have their own names and specialties, and you can see them on our Facebook page. We originally had more but some of them, like the one whose thing is to peak under women‘s skirts, weren‘t considered child-friendly enough.
The santa clauses‘ mother will kidnap your children, and the Christmas cat will eat them
They also have a dad but no one really knows what he does. He‘s just there. You can bypass the cat by getting at least one piece of new clothing for Christmas. This tradition probably comes from the fact that Icelanders were very poor in the past and only got new clothes for special occasions, such as Christmas.
We take the advent seriously
The four Sundays before Christmas are important. We have a Christmas wreath with four candles and each Sunday we light one more candle, so the fourth and last Sunday all four candles are lit. Also, we have advents calendars so that every day until the 24th we open one day on the calendar and get a piece of chocolate. Some calendars only have a picture, but the chocolate ones are way better, for obvious reasons.
Christmas is the 24th of December, because that‘s the correct Christmas date, at 6pm to be exact
We looked into this and the answer for these different Christmas date is simple. Since Christianity developed out of Judaism, Christians originally followed Jewish traditions. According to Jewish traditions, a day starts with sunset on the day before. So the 25th actually starts at sunset the 24th. Some countries still follow this old traditions while others have modernized it. So both dates are correct. The 24th is more correct though. Totally.
The 23rd of December is a thing
One of Iceland’s only saints is Þorlákur helgi (Thorlak the holy) and his holy day is the 23rd of December. We call that day Þorláksmessa, or Thorlak’s Mass. Traditionally, we eat fermented skate (the fish) on that day. It used to be a daily dish but it’s really smelly. Like really really smelly, you smell it everywhere on the 23rd. And it sticks to your clothes so you have to take a shower after you eat it.
A lot of our Christmas songs aren‘t Christmas songs
In the past, Christmas was one of the only time people could come together and have fun. So people just sang whatever they wanted and danced around. So we have Christmas songs about “walking over sea and land”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and a song about what people of different ages and genders do. A lot of these songs have hand movements with them so the lyrics are basically meaningless but make you clap, stap, turn around, etc.
We have Jewish lights in our windows
Okay so we might be a bit religiously confused, but we‘re trying. The story is that a guy was traveling in Sweden and saw someone making these lights. He gave it to some of his relatives and they were so popular that he started importing them. They’re not exactly Jewish per se, but look similar to Menorahs. Now these lights are standard Christmas lights in Iceland and most families have at least one to put in their window.
Because Christmas is a family holiday in Iceland, we don’t spend it with our friends. However, since Christmas is fun and we want to have a good time with our friends as well, we have Little Christmas. Friends meet up, eat good food, and usually there’s Secret Santa. That way everyone gets one present and only needs to buy one present.
Almonds are important because they can get you extra gifts
The desert on Christmas Eve traditionally has one almond in it. The one who gets the almond in his or her food gets an extra present. More often than not this present is candy or sweets. The desert is some sort of sweet porridge, often rice, or homemade ice cream.
The Icelandic word for Christmas isn‘t very Christian
In Iceland, and the other Nordic countries, the word for Christmas has nothing to do with Christ. The Icelandic word is “jól”, and is the same word as the English word “yule”. In the North (and in many other cultures) Christmas replaced an older festival that was connected with the Winter Solstice. In the North that festival was Yule, and it seems that changing the actual festival was so much of a hassle that no one could be bothered with changing the name.
Christmas cards! We must keep them alive!
Traditionally, everyone sends Christmas cards to everyone they know. Some people just write “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”, other write a detailed account of what they did that year. Sadly, these Christmas cards are becoming less and less popular. Nowadays most people just send texts or post things on Facebook.
Give elf-children food or you will die
There is an old story in Iceland that tells of a person that was left at home to take care of the house when everyone else in the household went to join Christmas mass. When all the people came home, the person had be brutally murdered. The same thing happened next Christmas, so obviously no one wanted to do this deadly job anymore. So the people left a young woman at home that everyone was mean to, sort of like a Christmas Cinderella. Christmas Cinderella was cooking Christmas food when a child came up to her and asked her for some food. Christmas Cinderella wasn’t supposed to give anyone food but she felt bad for the child and gave it some. Later, elves and hidden people came to her, thanked her for giving their child food, and gave her bunch of gold, riches and everything you could want in life. Christmas Cinderella’s mean stepsister got jealous and she insisted of being the one left at home the next Christmas. Obviously the mean stepsister didn’t give the elf-child any food and she was brutally murdered. Moral of the story: always give elf-children food. Also, be a nice person.
What’s your experience with Icelandic Christmas?