Through my South African husband, I have become wiser and more aware of the little quirks in Icelandic culture we often fail to mention to those newly arrived.
One of the misunderstandings I’ve personally encountered concerns Christmas Eve. In Iceland, it is the most sacred night of the holiday season.
It is on Christmas Eve that families gather and celebrate the birth of Jesus. Even if you’re a non-believer, the height of the holiday season is Christmas Eve.
There is an air of real joy and authentic holiday spirit that makes the night so important, as well as the fact we get to spend it with the people we love most.
At 6 pm on Christmas Eve church bells ring in the holy night, the Bishop of Iceland leads a service at Hallgrímskirkja, and a delicious meal is ready to devoured.
People put on their finest dresses and suits, even heels and shiny shoes. Ideally, a new dress, or at the very least a new shirt, must be bought to avoid falling prey to the black-as-soot Christmas Cat (jólakötturinn) and its foul owner Grýla, who is mother to our 13 impoverished ‘Santa Clauses’). According to the tales of old, Grýla snacks on children who are not wearing at least one new item of clothing on Christmas Eve.
The pressure is on to look your best.
My husband’s first experience of Christmas in Iceland was strange, but in hindsight, enjoyable. He arrived to the country on a dim and snowy Christmas Eve from the sunny shores of South Africa after almost 30 hours of little or no sleep.
I went to Keflavík International Airport to pick him up after two long months apart. I even wore my favorite dress. I was so happy to have him back in my arms that I didn’t realize how disorienting that first Christmas Eve was for him until later. He arrived at my sister’s place, exhausted from a long flight, having chosen to spend Christmas with his girlfriend of four months at the other end of the planet.
Thankfully, my family fell in love with him on the spot and the evening turned out to be lovely.
After a lovely evening, we drove back to the nearby town of Akranes from where I am from, and went straight to bed. He slept for 12 hours and easily could have slept for another 12 after the delays on the way over.
Speechless in Icelandic, physically exhausted, and utterly confused, he attended our first-ever maternal family gathering. For the next few days, he slept past the few hours of daylight every day until December 28.
It wasn’t until the following year, on the morning of Christmas Eve, that I realized just how confusing it had been.
As we woke up on December 24, I said to him “it’s Christmas!” He smiled but thought I was joking, literally.
In the afternoon, I asked him if he was going to shower before heading to my sister’s place and if he’d picked out something to wear. He gave me a look I’ll never forget. It was a look of utter surprise and complete shock. His first Christmas was a hazy time and perhaps because he’d been in the air when the church bells rang in Christmas at 6 pm, Christmas Eve dinner was just a family dinner.
My husband grew up with family meals on Christmas Eve but Christmas Day was proper Christmas. These days, we have started our own tradition to keep South African traditions as alive as we can.
Sure, we don’t light up the braai (grill) and enjoy a fabulous meal with family and/or friends under the warm South African sun. For Christmas day morning, we cook chicken or turkey with his very own Christmas stuffing, and leave presents under the tree. We attend the annual family gathering but leave a little earlier so that we can have our own Christmas feast.
The tradition to attend family gatherings with your extended family on Christmas Day and Boxing Day is widespread I believe. Most people I know have a party or two to attend where they eat hangikjöt (smoked lamb), peas and white gravy.
Some have two or three, even more, parties to attend. But like I said, Christmas is a season in its own right and most families go to a lot of trouble to make the holidays as picture perfect as possible. For some the holiday season is a stressful season. I’ve heard stories of people who freak out in late November if all the presents aren’t already purchased and wrapped.
Others are more relaxed and use the evening of December 23 (Þorláksmessa) to buy the last presents on Laugavegur shopping street while taking in the joyful holiday spirit.
If you ever find yourself in Iceland at this time of year, no matter where you are in the country, join the holiday spirit with locals and travelers alike. It’s worth it.
Christmas in Iceland is still a huge event in the calendar with December 24 a public holiday, and many use the opportunity by taking time off during the whole last week of the year.
When asked if Christmas is a religious festival or a family one in Iceland, I say yes and no to both. Yes it is a religious festival to those who pledge legend to Christian ideology but it’s also a family holiday during which the dark and gloomy days are lit up with a strings of lights and rich decorations. So much in fact that it’s been called the ‘Holiday of Lights,’ and rejuvenates the spirit with sufficient energy to last until spring.
In the olden days, it was the time of year when life was given heart-warming purpose in the midst of a cold winter. It was a time to celebrate with the people in your life and escape the darkness outside. Many Icelanders, dirt poor and cold, lived in rural regions far away from houses to shelter them from the torrent of Iceland’s most menacing weather.
To keep warm by a candle and enjoy a good meal with family and friends was a celebration everybody looked forward to and for many it was the highlight of the year.
For lovers of the holiday season, Iceland is a top quality destination to experience little Iceland at its best.
Júlíana Björnsdóttir – firstname.lastname@example.org
Júlíana is a freelance writer and translator. She was among contributing writers in the Reykjavík edition of World Film Locations and translated Iceland 360°, a photography book by Vilhelm Gunnarsson. She is currently working on her first novel as part of her MA studies and loves to travel when she’s not spending time with her husband and puppy Emma.