I asked one of my girlfriends, Tinna, to share her Icelandic Christmas traditions. She’s amazing and has written up about all the major dishes and treats as well as traditions on days before and after Christmas.
Tinna hails from Isafjördur in the West Fjörds of Iceland but is a true globetrotteur. Please check out Tinna’s blog (in Icelandic) and post a comment if you a question or experience to share!
Jólahlaðborð – Julbord – is something that co-workers and groups of friends do in the advent, usually at restaurants and hotels. There they’ll find most of the food that will then be eaten at Christmas. This is usually not a family thing, and more of a drunken ordeal with over-eating and dancing through the night.
Laufabrauð – Leaf bread – is traditionally from the northern parts of Iceland, but in the last 50 years or so the custom has spread and it is common for families to meet up in the weeks before Christmas to cut beautiful patterns in the leaf thin bread that is then deep fried. I’ll send pictures this week!
Kjötsúpa – Meat soup – is really not eaten at Christmas anymore, although I know that some people in their 50s and older have grown up eating meat soup for Christmas. It is actually really interesting to see how the traditions have changed in the last 50 years. Turkey of course is the newest addition to our Christmas tables, and I think more and more people eat it every year, but then perhaps on the 25th or New Year’s Eve.
Today, ptarmigan and glazed ham (hamborgarhryggur) are the most common dinners on the 24th, hangikjöt with white sauce (kind of bechamel) and potatoes on the 25th.
The leg of lamb is something my father grew up eating at Christmas. He grew up on a farm, and the Christmas luxury in the 60’s involved eating fresh meat, not smoked or salted, on the 24th. Often the meat was stuffed with dried apricots, prunes and dried apples (this is actually insanely good, but not really done anymore).
Brúnaðar kartöflur – Caramel potatoes – is a side dish that I think it is safe to say that is on every family’s dinner table sometime over the holidays. It is sooo sweet but is surprisingly good with the savoury meat. Basically you boil a bunch of potatoes, remove the skin and let them cool for a while. Meanwhile you slowly heat 50 g of sugar in a big pan until it starts to melt, then add the butter and stir until combined. My grandmother also adds a splash of cream, which is delicious. The cream can not be to cold though, then the caramel will get angry. Also be careful that the potatoes are completely dry before you add them to the pan. Cook until potatoes are warm and be careful not to get burned by the piping hot caramel.
Jólagrautur – Rice pudding – is traditionally just risgrynsgröt, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. This is a dish now eaten year round, but some families still eat it at Christmas as well. Many have turned to the sweeter Ris à l´amande, served with cherry-sauce (as in Denmark) or with warm sauces made from blueberries or crowberries. It is perfect as a dessert and in some families (mine for example) an almond is hidden in one of the bowls of Ris à l´amande. The person who gets the almond is supposed to keep it hidden for as long as possible and then gets a small present for winning the almond.
Christmas dessert varies a lot though, so many have home made ice cream or just some delicious and super advanced things that they finally have time to make as they are on holiday.
Rjúpa used to be eaten all winter long by families living in areas where they were common and easy to get. I think it is just in the last 40-50 years that they have become Christmas food. 10 years ago or so, the ptarmigans were getting dangerously few, so ptarmigan hunting has been severely limited since then.
We bake a lot of cookies (smákökur) in December, not only piparkökur. The different sorts are too many to count, but the remarkable thing is that cookies are basically only baked before Christmas. People in Scandinavia would recognize most of the cookies, as they are a version of Danish/Swedish/Norwegian småkakor, but I’m not sure if they are common in the US for example.
Kleinur and skyr are not really Christmas food, although they are certainly also eaten at Christmas. There is not really a tradition of glögg here in Iceland, it is at least clearly Scandinavian to us. We do drink a lot of hot chocolate though.
On the 23rd of December we celbrate Þorláksmessa, which is the mass of the only saint Iceland got before we stopped being catholic and became protestants back in the 1500s.
The tradition of eating fermented skate on the 23rd apparently has it’s origins in the West Fjords, and has just spread to other parts of the country in the last 30-40 years. Not everyone eats the skate
(understandably) and the smell gets stuck in your clothes and irritates the hell out of people living in apartment buildings for example. It is served with potatoes and hamsatólg (melted lamb’s fat (I KNOW!! YUK!)). I prefer having a few slices of rúgbrauð (rye bread) and a lot of butter with my skate.
Thirteen nights before Christmas the Yuletide Lads (Jólasveinarnir) come to cause mischief in the home. The parents of these lads, Grýla and Leppalúði, are trolls that were angry and wanted to scare children. Over the years, they have taken on a more benevolent role.
Today, you put shoe on the windowsill for the thirteen nights before Christmas. If you were well behaved the Yule Lads will treat you with something in the shoe, if not, you get a potato. It’s a lot of fun!
The festivities begin on the 23rd, with the eating of skate. This is also the day when most families decorate their Christmas tree. On the 24th, aðfangadagur, Christmas arrives at 18:00. Before that people are busy taking their Christmas bath, finishing the food for the evening and wrapping the last of the presents.
Then at 18:00 the holy hours begin, lasting through Christmas day.
Christmas mass is usually at 18:00 and then sometimes there is a “midnight” mass at around 21:00. Many families sit down to eat their dinner at 18 sharp, but some wait until normal dinner time at 19h or 20h. Most families that don’t go to church on the 24th will still listen to the Christmas mass on the radio at 18:00.
After dinner and cleaning up, we gather around the Christmas tree and open up our presents. This can take a long time, as everyone is supposed to look at and admire each others new things. Afterwards it is common to open the Christmas cards (I open mine when they arrive though) and read them over a cup of coffee, some chocolate or smákökur.
This is the holiest of nights, the 24th, there is no playing cards or board games. During pre-Christianization, there was a lot of drinking, merriment, and playing cards during this time of the year which after Christianization, was frowned upon.
On the 25th, jóladagur, many go to church again (a holy event). The 25th and 26th, annar í jólum (the second day of Christmas) are very common for family gatherings and the eating certainly continues. The family gatherings often continue in the week between Christmas and New Years, so Christmas feels really long.
There is absolutely no Boxing Day or mellandagsrea in Iceland. We take our Christmas seriously and spend it with family, not running around in shops. Oh, and there is no getting drunk and partying, not until the 26th at least.
In my family we have a big tradition of playing board games in the days between Christmas and New Year. Friends and family come over and eat mandariner and smákökur over games of Trivial pursuit, Risk, Sequence etc. Plenty of food, family, friends, and the occasional Monopoly fight.
New Years Eve is also spent at home with the family. It is not until after midnight people would go out to meet friends and go dancing.
Christmastime is incredible dark and long for us in Iceland so we take the holidays seriously. It is a time to splurge on fresh meats and sweets, since these were/are luxury items, and reflect upon the year with families.
Here’s to wishing you a God Jul!