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Iceland Mag


How to do Christmas like an Icelander

By Sara McMahon

  • Austurvöllur square in Reykjavík Many will flock downtown on Þorláksmessa to buy the last Christmas gift, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and meet up with friends and other family members. Photo/Vilhelm 

They say Christmas is the best time of the year and there‘s no denying that there are countless reasons to love the holiday. Christmas traditions vary from household to household, but there are a number of customs most Icelanders hold dear. Here‘s how to celebrate the holidays like a true Icelander.


23 December – Þorláksmessa (St. Thorlak‘s Mass)
This day has become an integral part of the Icelandic Christmas celebration. Many will flock downtown on Þorláksmessa to buy the last Christmas gift, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and meet up with friends and other family members.
With Þorláksmessa also comes the smelly tradition of chowing down on some fermented skate, known as kæst skata in Icelandic. While enthusiasts for the dish rejoice, others are filled with feelings of dread - there is no escaping the ammonia fumes on Þorláksmessa as the strong-smelling dish is served in many restaurants and homes.


24 December – Aðfangadagur (Christmas Eve)
Icelanders celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. The day is spent preparing dinner and delivering gifts to other family members. At 6 pm, when the church bells ring in Christmas, everything falls quiet and families will gather around the dinner table. Gifts are exchanged after dinner.


25 December – Jóladagur (Christmas Day)
Christmas Day is generally spent lounging about while sipping on ‘jólaöl’ (non-alcoholic Christmas drink) and munching on left-overs. Many will spend the day reading a book they received for Christmas or visiting family.


26 December – Annar í jólum (Boxing Day)
Yet another day of family gatherings and indulgence. Boxing Day has also become a popular night to go out and party as bars and clubs reopen for business after midnight.


31 December – Gamlársdagur (New Year’s Eve)
After dinner, most families will attend one of many bonfires organised all over Reykjavík. The fires are lit at 8.30 pm. At around 10.30 pm everyone, old and young, will gather around the TV to watch ‘Áramótaskaupið’, an annual television special that pokes fun at major news events that took place in Iceland in 2015. After ‘Áramótaskaupið’ people head outside and prepare for the magnificent fireworks display at midnight. On a typical New Year’s Eve, Icelanders shoot more than 500 tons of fireworks into the sky - that’s 1.5 kg (3 lbs.) per person. Do as we do and bulk up on fireworks for the evening. You’ll also be lending a helping hand to a good cause as local search and rescue units finance much of their operation through annual firework sales.


1 January – Nýársdagur (New Year’s Day)
Sjósundsfélag Reykjavíkur (Reykjavík Sea Swimming Association) organises an annual fancy dress dip in Nauthólsvík bay on New Year’s Day. The popular event begins at noon, 12 pm.
A number of restaurants and bars hold glamorous New Year’s Day parties in the evening – events that have become increasingly popular.


6. January – Þrettándinn ( Feast of the Epiphany)
This is the last day of Christmas, and on that day the thirteen mischievous Icelandic Yule Lads head back to their homes in the mountains. The festivities end with bonfires where humans, Yule Lads, elves, trolls, and imps all come together for festive song and dance and formally bid farewell to Christmas.

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