The Christmas season is an excellent time to visit Iceland. Though the days are short and cold, there’s a festive atmosphere as families prepare for the holidays. Christmas festivities start in Iceland around December 12 when the 13 Yule-Lads – who are like naughty Santas – come down from the mountains to essentially terrorize (all in good fun) the people of Iceland. The Yule-Lads begin arriving one by one 13 days before Christmas, and then begin to leave again the day after. With names like Window-Peeper, Bowl-Licker, Pot-Scraper, Sausage-Pilfer, Skyr-Glutton and Door-Slammer, each Yule-Lad has his own brand of mischief. Children leave their shoes out on the windowsill and, if they’ve been good, the Yule-Lads will leave a gift; bad children are left with a potato.
In the days leading up to Christmas, families decorate their houses in much the same way we do in the US – with Christmas trees, lights, wreaths, garland and props like reindeer and snowmen. They also send Christmas cards to loved ones and spend many hour shopping for holiday gifts for family and friends. Icelanders do their main Christmas celebration on December 24, so December 23 is the last day for shopping and you’ll find most stores packed with last-minute shoppers.
On December 24, Icelanders celebrate Christmas with a hearty meal and the exchange of gifts. The traditional meal of lamb is now more often replaced with ham, smoked lamb, and ptarmigan with side dishes including potatoes, peas and beans, and gravy. Generally, alcohol is not served until December 26. After dinner gifts such as books, toys, and clothing are exchanged. An old Icelandic folklore take states that everyone has to get one new piece of clothing at Christmas; anyone who doesn’t could be eaten by the “Christmas Cat” the evil cat of the mother of the Yule-Lads. Following tradition, most Icelanders receive at least one item of clothing each holiday.
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The night of December 24 is not a very good one to be a tourist in Iceland, unless you have a local family to celebrate with. Aside from hotel restaurants, everything in the city shuts down and the streets are empty. On Christmas Day, most people sleep late and then spend time with extended family; most business and city services are still closed.On December 26, the Yule-Lads begin leaving and life returns mostly to normal; Icelanders take down their holiday decorations on January 6.
Photo by Kristin Sig