Christmas is often known as ‘Jól’ (Yule) in Iceland. This comes from the ancient celebrations of the winter solstice, which were taken by the early Christians. Jól also includes the New Year celebrations.
There are many customs and traditions about Jól in Iceland. The season of Jol consists of the following days:
Þorláksmessa – Saint Thorlakur’s Day – December 23
The greatest Saint of Iceland is’ heilagur Þorlákur Þórhallsson ‘, or’ St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson ‘, the Bishop of Skálholt. On December 23, it is the day he died. On the day of San Thorlakur, the main custom is to eat a simple skata or skate meal. The tree of Jol (or Christmas) is usually decorated on this day. This is also a great day of shopping for last-minute gifts, with stores that remain open until midnight.
Aðfangadagur – Christmas Eve / Jól Eve
The celebrations begin in Iceland at 6:00 pm in Jól Eve. This may come from the ancient Icelandic tradition, when a new day began at 6:00 p.m. Not at midnight. Icelandic children open their gifts after dinner at Aðfangadagur. This is when the celebrations of Jol really begin! (The TV used to stop around 5:00 p.m. and restarted at 10:00 p.m. But now the TV is on during the entire Christmas period).
Jóladagur – Christmas Day / Jolá Day
Jóladagur is usually celebrated with the extended family. The main meal of Jól is ‘Hangikjöt’, a roasted leg of lamb. Sometimes, you also eat Rjúpa (Rock Ptarmigan a gamebird). Another food specialty Jól is ‘Laufabrauð’ or leaf bread. It is made of thin slices of dough cut into delicate patterns and fried. Each family often has its own patterns for the Laufabrauð.
Annar Jóladagur – Boxing Day
This is another day to visit friends and family and eat much more! Public entertainment is considered inappropriate in Jól Eve and Jól Day, and it is in Boxing Day that they are allowed to dance again in public.
Gamlárskvöld / Nýársdagur – New Year’s Eve / New Year
This is one of the most important nights of the year in Iceland and there are several magical traditions that are supposed to happen in it! The cows are meant to be able to speak, the seals take human form, the dead rise from their graves and the Elves move from their homes.
The bonfires have been lit in Gamlárskvöld since the late 1700s. People also have large fireworks displays for the new year. This is called ‘sprengja út árið’ or ‘blowing the year’.
Þrettándinn – Epiphany – January 6
This is the last day of Jól, celebrated with Elfin bonfires and dances. It is also assumed that many of the magical traditions associated with New Year’s Eve in the atrettándinn.
Happy / Merry Christmas / Jól in Icelandic is ‘Gleðileg jól’.
Another great custom of Jól is the arrival of the ‘Jólasveinarnir’ or Jóltide Lads. These are magical people who come from the mountains in Iceland and every day, from December 12 to Jól Eve, comes a different Jólasveinn (Jóltide lad).
Jólasveinar first came to Iceland in the 17th century with the sons of Grýla and Leppalúði, a couple of bloodthirsty ogres who eat children.
Here are thirteen of the most common names of Jólasveinar:
Stekkjarstaur – Gimpy
Giljagaur – Gully Imp
Stúfur – Itty Bitty
Þvörusleikir – Pot Scraper Licker
Pottasleikir – Pot Licker
Askasleikir – Bowl Licker
Hurðaskellir – Slammer door
Skyrgámur – Skyr Gobbler (Skyr, an Icelandic yogurt)
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage starter
Gluggagægir – Peeper Window
GáttaÞefur – Doorway Sniffer
Ketkrókur – Meat Hooker
Kertasníkir – Vela Beggar
The Jólasveinar are considered as goblins or playful elves who love to eat and play little tricks to people.
They leave small gifts for children in shoes placed on the window sill. If the children have been naughty, they can leave a potato or a small message telling them to be good. They start to go home on Christmas day, and the last one leaves in Þrettándinn.
Gifts can also be brought by Jólasveinn (Jól Man).
In Iceland it is traditional for everyone to have a new garment for Jol and, often, also a book. A traditional story is that the Christmas cat will eat you unless you wear a new garment on Christmas day! Children also traditionally receive a candle and, sometimes, a pack of cards.
There are no evergreen native trees in Iceland, so the first trees or Christmas trees were Rowan (mountain ash). The first engraved tree was in 1862. People started to make Jól trees from a central pole with branches attached to it and everything was painted green.
Today, there are evergreens grown in Iceland and people have evergreens. It is traditional to have a star or crown on top of the tree. The Icelandic flag is also commonly used as decoration. The tree is usually decorated in Þorláksmessa or on Christmas Eve. A large tree is located outside the Cathedral of Reykjavík (the capital of Iceland) and is an annual gift from the people of Oslo, Norway.
In Iceland, traditional Christmas food is roast lamb. Some people like to smoke to add flavor and traditionally smoked on sheep manure! This is still done in some places today!
As in Finland, cemeteries are often illuminated and decorated with Christmas lights at Christmas.