Joladagur – Icelandic Christmas Traditions


Ever since I have arrived here at the beginning of December, it quickly became apparent this is the most important time of the year for Icelandic people, and they anticipate and prepare for their celebrations in an enthusiastic and intense manner.

Probably the most atypical tradition you will find in their culture from everyone else that celebrates Christmas is they have 13 Santas! The 13 Santas, also known as the Christmas lads (Jólasveinar) start coming down from the mountains one by one each night starting on December 11th. This is an ingenious tradition, as the children set a pair of shoes out by the window each night hoping for a small present from the visiting Santa. If the child has been good, they get a nice present, but if not they will get a potato. It was pointed out to me that Icelandic children don’t have Christmas stockings, as they don’t have chimney’s (most of their buildings are heated geothermally) In previous generations I have learned the lads were much scarier and meaner and there was the added bonus of the Yule cat who might eat you if you were not wearing new clothes on Christmas (thus a tradition of at least getting new socks for the holiday). Older adults embellished how they shook under their sheets in fear of the Yule cat.
Now, to my own confusion I know the lads are out and about but the red and white suited Santa is also popular both as a concept, and seen in Christmas décor. One woman told me her five year old became very confused because they saw four red and white Santas in a car- why were they not in sleds?

The 13 Christmas lads each have distinctive names and are laden with mischievous personalities that become apparent if you catch them. I love their get ups too, they are much more tattered and plump in different ways than our now commercial airbrushed Santa.


Typical of the twisted Icelandic humor, when I was out (in what I identified as a remote) lava field a week ago on a small guided day tour of the region, we were suddenly surprised by a tattered but friendly character sliding down a snow covered hill greeting us – it was Shorty, the third lad! I couldn’t stop laughing, as we had trekked a good ten minutes in, over ice to take a closer look at some lava formations. I was like, did he get radioed ahead that we were coming? There was no clear shelter for Shorty and soon apparent friend (who was kicked back on a formation, smoking and also laughing). It turns out it is the idea of the owner of the Hotel Mývatn in the area to bring people out to the area. Maybe on weekends (!) but on that day we were the only four people I had seen. Shorty put on a good show and gave us an apple. A truly insane idea and carried out to full effect even for adults.



As a holiday crazy kid I was always looking for more ways to add festivities to our family life, including the not too successful co-opting of the Swedish Santa Lucia holiday. If I had known that Icelandic children had 13 Santas, I would have been so envious!

Another Icelandic Christmas tradition I am kind of obsessing over is their special holiday bread, called Laufabrauđ (leaf bread). Very thin sheets of dough are folded and cut into special patterns that are reminiscent of cutting snowflakes out of construction paper. There were even special cutting tools made for this tradition that is specific to northern Iceland but celebrated nationally, including the prevalence of prepackaged and pre-cut Laufabrauđ in the frozen foods section.


Allegedly, tomorrow, December 23rd is St. Þorlakur’s Day, named for Iceland’s major native Saint, Þorkakur Þorhallsson, former Bishop of Skálholt. I haven’t actually heard anything to confirm if this is still traditionally carried out, but if so it includes a family meal of skate, last minute shopping and the decorating of the Christmas tree.

I have been told that Icelandic woman go crazy cleaning and cooking the few days before Christmas, and tomorrow night almost all stores stay open on Christmas. Then, for 2 ½ days they just gather with their families and relax.

In one weeks time after that are the New Years Eve celebrations, where there are supposed to be so many fireworks clouding the sky that all you can see is red.
The newspaper, almost devoid of any political content from America has been running full page articles on Quentin Tarratino and his plans to be in Reykjavík with “unnamed celebrity friends” for the New Years holiday. I had no idea why he was getting so much daily coverage until I read on Iceland Review what the deal was. I have been very grateful for their English coverage of Icelandic news, as at this point I would truly be living in a bubble with out a little help from them in translation.


Eating and such


The food.

Entire volumes could be written about the prohibitive cost of keeping yourself fueled in various ways in Iceland. I have met only one American the whole time I have been here and it was our main topic of conversation- she just couldn’t get over how steep it all is. The American dollar has plummeted too since I last visited Europe, which has led the topic of money to sit squarely on my back shoulder at all times.
The few times I have gone out to eat- usually a bowl of soup with bread has been between $10-15.
Subsequently, I have been mainly cooking for myself, becoming a connoisseur of the local grocery stores here, and making half assed guesses at converting Fahrenheit to Celsius with no cookbook in site. Like going to tiny town, everything here seems smaller to me, from coffee cups to spaghetti sauce to vegetables, and unlike what I’m used to seeing there is usually a selection of: one.

These facts from Iceland Review reveal I am not imagining things:

According to a new report from the Nordic Competition Authorities food prices in Iceland are 42% higher in Iceland than in EU countries. At the same time there is a narrower range of food products available in Iceland and Norway. The Nordic Competition Authorities examined the food markets in the Nordic region. According to the report food prices tend to be higher in the Nordic countries compared to other European countries. According to the report Baugur controls 47% of the retail market in Iceland. The Icelandic Competition Authorities pointed out that since the report was completed Baugur has added food stores in Iceland.

I was told jokingly before I left to bring some Metamucil with me as the site of a vegetable might be quite rare. Almost half right. The grocery stores do have them, most of the vegetation seems to come up from Holland and Spain. My favorite has been the packaging of baby cauliflower and baby broccoli together. Things like green beans, if you can find them are packaged in little clumps, similar to how herbs are sold in American grocery stores in the winter. I have been making a lot of soups. The meat section is a bewilderment to behold and I have not been so adventuresome. A popular site, reminiscent of the 1970s are cans of carrots and green vegetables cut into cubes.


I have become quite fond of their Icelandic made Skyr, similar to yogurt but much thicker. There is actually a television commercial of an enthusiastic blonde with an American accent going into a shop and asking for Sky-er. The cashier is confused until she realizes the tourist wants “Skir”. Allegedly in 2006 Whole Foods Groceries (I know) in the States will be importing Skyr and Icelambic lamb to some of their stores, so I imagine there will be many more mispronunciations, this time uncorrected.

The coffee here on a consistent basis is quite good, and I was cheered last night to buy a crate of Clementines (Clementinen) at a cost similar to what I am used to. There are numerous products packages specially for Gleđleg Jól— from smoked salmon, pickled herring to a special Christmas drink that is a combination of non alcoholic malt and orange soda.

You would be sadly mistaken here if you attempted to alleviate sugar from your diet. There is incidentally a health food store here, very tiny that I visited last night out of pure curiosity. They had interesting things from Africa and many mysterious jars along with the standard organic this and that. As you can imagine, the cost of everything was too prohibitive to even entertain. I went home and enjoyed my Clementines.

By the way, the only way to purchase alcohol in any form except to going to a pub is to visit the state run liquor stores. There is a reason the duty free store at their main airport is crammed, as the sticker shock on alcohol is truly unbelievable (an area where they excel at Value Added Tax). Already the newspaper contains postings of when the liquor store (in Akureyri it’s the Vin Búđ) will be closed for the holidays- from noon on 12/24 and closed until the afternoon of 12/29. I’ve been told this is typical and a good reason I am stocking a bunker of food.


Islenski bachelorinn and other sophisticated fare


Yes, there is art here, but I have this report to share that is of more cultural relevance at the moment.

Like any good wanna be armchair cultural anthropologist, I watched more Icelandic television last night. As it turns out, it was the season finale for Islenski bachelorinn, a show so clearly rivaling American reality TV in clichés that it elevated its self above and beyond any language barrier. I was transfixed! However, it was apparent in flashback sequences that they competitive sequences had been played out in the Icelandic wilderness and caves, adding a different allure to the entire show. I have never watched the American version, but can easily see there could be similiar plot lines.

I have not really taken a moment to comment on Icelandic television. From a visit 5 years ago, I know they have the capability of all the same cable tv we have back in the States. Thankfully all I have access to are 2 stations. There is actually one other station, but it mainly shows stills of shopping advertisements while music is played in the back ground. About once an hour a news break comes on. The news is astounding as people are given full airtime to voice their stories, opinions and even their school Christmas programs – in their entirety.

After being here for two weeks the oddity to me as someone used to American sound bytes and high production values is not as apparent. I much prefer this homespun version, and find the programming a wonder – every timeslot brings something completely different- whether a rerun of Law and Order or a highly amusing Icelandic game show called Poppunktur, which is a trivia game show (similar to Jeopardy I gathered) between two teams of Icelandic rock stars, of course the focus of the show is Rock Musak! There is a show host that keeps the quickly paced show moving between questions, activities of skill (the long jump anyone?) and of course each band gets to perform before they enter the final face off. There is another man who stands behind the host with an intimidating muscle man mustache, whose role I could not decipher for the life of me (maybe he is a DJ?). I found myself rooting for the huskier looking band Geirfuglar, with the guy in the red shirt ,the drummer and also the lead singer (much better than Phil Collins).

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A few things American TV could use a bit more of:

      Full 60 second ads for new books


The airing of British television shows on regular TV, and additionally the willingness to not editing out f words- all are kept intact. Yes, that is how people really talk.

The allowance of people over the age of 40 on television sets that have not been susceptible to the knife of a plastic surgeon. What a concept!

Less or almost no television commercials. Along with the allowance of long monologues on all locally produced shows (talk shows, without slap dash pacing take on a whole other worldliness) this adds a strange twist of time-reality to all television viewing.

Three minute polka breaks!

The first week I was here I had no music and once I found out the television actually worked, I got down to business in comparing and contrasting cultural differences via the airwaves while I painted. I was actually hoping, like the Japanese lady in the 1970’s movie The Boatniks, if I stayed up all night watching Icelandic television I would be fully fluent in the language in the morning. No dice.

The poor Icelanders are unfortunately susceptible to high amounts of American television shows. All TV is shown in its original language, accompanied by Icelandic subtitles. This has thrown me for a loop when what I think was Swedish programming came on. I am sure I am missing gobs of information, especially during their own news broadcasts. It’s a very pretty language, and one I wish I could speak. Speaking of, almost no American news makes its way out here either via the airwaves (there is no English televised news so I could be fooling myself) or in their newspapers. This has been very refreshing, I can’t even explain how good it is to take a break from hearing about the non stop baloney back home.


Finally I would be completely remiss if I did not mention the Miss World competition. A week ago, this came on and of course I left it on, mildly amused by the schlock value that any beauty pageant radiates. Little did I know until the end that I was witnessing an event that has made the front page of the newspapers here for the last week: Unnur Birna Vilhjalmsdottir, Miss Iceland was crowned Miss World.

a note from the land of sleet and ice


Ah, I can´t believe I have been in Iceland for over a week. Time has slowed down. I won´t have regular internet access so intermittently will I post. Strangely my gmail account is not accessible here.

I like it here very much, and life has taken surrealistic tones, as I sit here typing this at 1:30 in the afternoon and knowing the daylight is slipping away. That has taken some getting used to.
There is much activity here over the upcoming Christmas holiday. Icelanders consider this their foremost family holiday and can´t imagine spending it alone. Many have expressed concern I will be spending mine alone, and even the tourist office here said they can´t convince even one restaurant to stay open, so I best take care of myself for the time span (it is a three day holiday for them, starting promptly at 6pm on Christmas eve). That being said, it might be a tad lonely, but I do think it is fantastic that they do not cave- will not give up their holiday. My plan is to bunker in with a good port and some pickled herring I think.

The weather has warmed up a lot. I walked around town today with out my gloves. Unfortunately the entire town has turned into a sheet of ice, which makes even a jaunt to the grocery store an act of treachery. I have been beyond amazed at the Icelandic woman who skate on this ice in their 5 inch pumps, meanwhile you know who here can barely make it across the street in here action boots.


akureyri map_c

Hallo! From Iceland. It is like a fairy tale here, very snowy, very quiet and very Christmasy. Much to report, as the sun is just cresting the mountains here at 12:10…my biggest snafu so far is I brought the wrong electrical plug with me and can not use my computer. I belive the art gods are telling me to get off the damn thing. So I am at the very nice and beautiful Akureyri Public library using their facilities for 200 kroner an hour.
At any rate, it is beautiful here and if I get my electricity sorted out we´ll be back soon. In the mean time I have to challenge this very interesting Icelandic keyboard that also includes: ðððð, þþþ and my favorite today:öööö ÖÖÖÖ.

I am only one of three foreigners in town right now, it is funny.