On a crisp, gloomy winter we arrived at the “land of fire and ice”. Focused entirely on “hunting” Aurora Borealis, we discovered a high-tech, tough, distinctive Nordic culture. Icelandic Christmastime was the most unusual and bright we have ever seen!
Icelandic Christmas Time: 9 reasons why is it so special
1. December: darkest or brightest? It is up to you 😉
The first thing we were struck by after arriving in Iceland … pitch darkness at 9 am. Sun rose up around 11 am and was ready to set at 3 pm. Even more, it didn’t really rise, just slightly lifted itself from the horizon:
Nevertheless, the Reykjavik was merry and bright – lightened up by countless Christmas lights. With some snow, Northern Lights dancing sporadically above the city,
and Christmas trees hanging over, we had the best holiday mood ever.
2. Christmas that lasts almost … a month
Unlike other cultures, Christmas in Iceland lasts for solid 26 days. (There are also 13 Santa Clauses or AKA Yule Lads in Iceland).
The holiday begins with Stekkjarstaur (the first Yule Lad) arriving in town on December 12th, 13 days before Christmas. The last day of the holiday is when the last Yule Lad, Kertasnikir, leaves on January 6th. Icelanders love Christmas!
trees in the air
From the end of November, Christmas trees are everywhere in Iceland, and especially in Reykjavik. The most unique for us were the ones… hanged above in the air:
We forgot to ask our guide what was standing behind such an unusual custom and it seems like the internet doesn’t know about it either :). Our version: to save space, especially on the sidewalks, and to prevent from toppling over by strong winds:
4. No trees for Christmas? No problem
The first thing you see in Iceland, either in reality or in a picture – bare ground. While there is luck of trees in Iceland, Christmas trees became common in the 19th century. At first, locals used to make their own trees from branches attached to the pole, with real candles.
One of the modern DIY trees we saw in Iceland:
Later, imported trees were made up the majority of Christmas trees sales, and now, locally grown trees are growing in popularity.
Read more about unusual Icelandic customs at Iceland Like a Local
5. Iceland Christmas time trip: 13 bad, Scary Santas
Icelandic Christmas traditions are distinctive and unusual. At first, kids have a love-hate relationship with Yule Lads or local Santas. (the Icelandic word for Christmas is jól.) Second, Santa isn’t limited to one, but 13, all with different habits and tastes.
And third, Icelandic Christmas combined Christian, folklore, and winter solstice celebration.
We were lucky to meet several Yule Lads at the Open Air Museum during the first days of December. Local kids reacted ambiguously to meeting them: some were scared, some crying:
Later, we would encounter Yule Lad’s signs at the Santa’s mail booth, cartons of milk, etc. (pictured below):
6. Only in Iceland: Jólabókaflóðið, the “Book Flood”
Iceland has the most writers, readers, and books published per capita in the world.
Books exchange is an Icelandic Christmas Eve tradition, appeared during WWII. During the difficult economic situation, books became a gift of choice, and so far is the most popular gift for Christmas.
Book flood is linked to the annual release of the new books (months before Christmas). Once they are listed in the catalog (Bókatíðindi) and distributed to all households (for the free), the “Book flood” has begun. 😉
7. Icelandic Christmas time trip: Aurora Borealis
Northern Lights were the initial reason why we decided to go to Iceland. (The alternative was Fairbanks, -17°F/-27.2°C during winter. Reykjavik promised temperatures around 0°C and -8°C.
Long winter nights and high latitude offer great chances for watching the aurora in Iceland. 4 nights out of 10 we saw some! The first was thin and white, like a cloud. (We discovered it was aurora through the camera). The last one was strongest, literally dancing above Reykjavik despite city lights:
Watching aurora is a matter of luck, although there are plenty of tours in Reykjavik that will make sure you’ll see some. Also, you can try some aurora forecast applications, as we did.
8. Árbær, open-air museum, local gem
Árbær is a unique place to learn about Icelandic history, traditions, and customs. The special thing about visiting it during Christmas – live presentation and special, holiday-related exhibitions.
During the afternoon we were able to watch how candles, prints, leaf bread are made; visit the simplest turf dwellings and wealthy houses. We tried some fish, made decorations, and met plenty of local families. Vintage toys were something to explore: wooden dolls, sheep’s jaws, and antlers. 😀
9. Icelandic Christmas time trip: best presents
What is the best present to bring from Iceland? Ethnic wool sweater (from 150€) or 9€ black lava salt? According to the Icelandic Tourism Board, there is something else that will make a decent gift: local books.
On the pictures below Brian Pilkington’s books, the most recognizable Icelandic author and illustrator. He will introduce you to Icelandic Trolls (more than half of the grown-ups in Iceland believe in them), beloved Icelandic bird, and Yule Lads or “Bad Santas”
Icelandic Christmas time: Essentials
- Dress up in layers and waterprove boots/jacket. Have mittens, hat nearby.
- Don’t forget your swimsuit – Iceland has excellent, heated by geothermal energy pools.
- Book accomodation as early as possible for the best rates.
- You can request tax (VAT) for goods bought in Iceland returned at the Keflavik airport upon departure.
- Bring a good camera (to shot Northern Lights) and binocurals.
- To feel the Icelandic energy visit places, beloved by locals: city pools, library, public market, open air museum.
- Traveling with little children to Iceland was a blast. It is one of the most kids-friendly place we have ever seen. More about it in the Iceland Like a Local.