The Icelandic Christmas spirit
Iceland is incredibly unique when it comes to Christmas traditions and folklore. Instead of a happy bearded man dressed in red and white, the Santas of Iceland are thirteen trolls who are led by their mother, a child-eating giant named Grýla.
This Christmas trolls are called Yule Lads, and they live in a daunting lava fortress of Dimmuborgir, which is located in the Mývatn area in the north of Iceland. From the night of the 11th to the 24th of December, one by one, they depart from their home to engage in thirteen days of mischief. All of them are very naughty and have different personalities and characteristics, for example there’s one that likes to slam doors, another that steals candles, one that peeks through windows, one that steals sausages, among many other attributes.
It has been a tradition here in Iceland since 1950 for young children to leave their biggest shoe on the windowsill in their bedroom thirteen days before Christmas. The Yule lads that are coming to town visit all the kids and leave a small present for them in their shoe every night. If a child hasn’t behaved well that day, he will find a raw potato in the shoe, but if he behaved well, it is more likely that he will get something sweet, an item of clothing (such as socks) or something to play with.
You should hope that the Yule Lads give you at least one pair of socks before Christmas, because if you don’t get any new clothes, you’ll get eaten by the Christmas Cat! The Yule Lad parents – Grýla and Leppalúði, own a black and terrible big cat that shows up on Christmas night and eats people who didn’t get any Christmas presents containing clothes, so you better get some soft gifts if you don’t want to be eaten by the cat. This is a way to ensure that children are happy to receive clothes instead of only wanting candies or toys. You can see this big Christmas cat on Lækjartorg square around Christmas time in Reykjavik, is 5 metres tall and 4 metres wide and glows in the dark with 6,500 led lights that make it sparkle.
The mother Grýla is a very bad and ugly ogre and she eats badly behaved children, she comes to pick them up, puts them in her sack and then cooks them in her cauldron turning them into a giant stew that will sustain her until next winter. Children in Iceland grow up believing in some of these stories and are very frightened with this giant woman that is portrayed on many Icelandic sagas. It can be a bit dark for some, but I guess children do try to behave in order to avoid the terrifying Grýla.
The last Yule Lad that visits is Kertasníkir (Candle Beggar), he arrives on the 24th of December and the well behaving children receive the biggest present in their shoe that day. This is the main day, during the day families take the time to deliver presents, cook dinner, laying the table, welcoming family over, biting chocolates and sweets and when the clock strikes 18:00 dinner takes place. The meal may vary from families, many will have smoked lamb, reindeer or roast turkey, often with a salmon or seafood starter. The traditional drink of this season is "Jólaöl", a mixture of non-alcoholic malt beer with a local orange soda. After dinner the presents are opened.
Some people choose to attend Mass at 18:00 and then have dinner afterwards, but it’s also possible to attend a midnight Mass in the local church. The evening at home is spent enjoying the gifts, playing board games or reading books. Books are a common Chritsmas gift in Iceland since there are dozens of new literature being published before each Christmas. This is even called the Christmas Book Flood due to the quantity of books published and to make the most of this many people enjoy relaxing in the sofa with a full stomach of tasty dinner and reading.
During the Christmas day is also common to visit cemeteries where loved ones may be resting and light up candles or more modern electric Christmas lights. These lights symbolize that the dead ones are remembered and missed. This custom shows how important is the role of the family in the culture of Iceland.
After Christmas, the Yule Lads return back to their home in Dimmuborgir, one by one, in the same order as they arrived until Christmas is over on the 6th of January, which is when people celebrate the end of the festivities with bonfires around town.
The Atelier team wants to wish you a wonderful Christmas and as we say in Icelandic: Gleðileg jól!