How was Christmas celebrated throughout history in Iceland? Skip to content

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How was Christmas celebrated throughout history in Iceland?

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In response to a reader request, we present this article from the archives.

Feasting Traditions at Christmastime

Árni Björnsson (1980)

The section on Christian law in the Gragas law code (13th century) has a chapter about the celebration of Christmas and what kind of work may be performed during the holidays. This proves to be almost nothing but the most urgent necessities, such as feeding the livestock, milking, and occasionally cleaning the stables. The rule is valid not only for the holidays proper but also for the days between. It is interesting to note that among the most urgent necessities are brewing and slaughtering: “Slaughtering the stock needed during Christmas and brewing ale are also among the chores to be done on the days between [the holidays proper] of Christmas.’’ This shows that during the commonwealth (930—1262) fresh meat and ale were considered indispensable for the festivities, a fact underscored by numerous instances in the sagas. It was also a fact, that at no other time of the year did people eat and drink more for days on end, and it has been the practice ever since that all the best food available be served at this time. The folktales make this evident, too.

While households were populous, as often was the case in commonwealth times, it was necessary to slaughter stock not only before Christmas but also, as Gragas indicates, between Christmas and New Year, or the Octave and Twelfth Night. When households grew smaller and the nation’s means decreased, especially after 1600, people in most places made do with slaughtering the Christmas ewe just before the holiday. Folktales also indicate this, and the custom was actually adhered to in many parts of the country; it was not entirely abandoned until freezing facilities became common. Hangikjöt (smoked lamb) was long the chief holiday dish, but it was not commonly eaten until Christmas Day. Some other tasty delicacies were those which now are known as traditional Icelandic food: flanks, intestinal sausages, briskets, hard fish, halibut fins, etc. In areas that were far from the sea, it was sometimes felt to be more of a change to eat fish rather than meat.

Other favorite dishes were, of course, dependent upon fashion and supply, such as the inevitable Christmas porridge, which could be meat porridge (actually a stew), barley porridge with syrup and milk, or a thick rice porridge with raisins.

Bread was hard to come by in Iceland most of the time because of erratic imports of grain flour. For that reason it was somewhat of a holiday treat, even if it was only flatbread or potted bread. Lace bread is mentioned in the oldest cookbook published in Iceland (1800), entitled A Simple Pocket Cook Hook for Ladies of Quality. It states: “Lace bread, or cakes made of flour dough, moistened with good sugared milk or cream, variously cut out and fried in melted butter, are so common that they need no further mentioning.” A well-known biography mentions a banquet in the year 1772 at which lace bread was also considered common native Icelandic food. After the mid-19th century, however, lace bread seems to have been particularly connected with the North and Northeast, and such has been the case ever since, until very recently when people in various parts of the country have resumed making it for their pleasure.

While there are decorated breads in other countries, an exact parallel to the lace bread is nowhere known. It is noteworthy how gossamer thin the bread is supposed to be, which prompts the guess that this was the result of the scarcity of flour. The decorative carving could also make the bread less filling. On the other hand, it was a beautiful and tasty bit of food which was fun to eat, even though each individual may not have been served more than one.

After the turn of this century and even more around 1920, people’s tastes in Christmas food changed considerably, especially in the countryside. By that time, stoves with baking ovens had become common, and imports of flour, sugar, and other baking materials were more abundant. This made it a good deal easier to bake all kinds of pastry. It then became fashionable, and alomst a status symbol, to store a profusion of cookies and stately cakes. Such production was the most elaborate around Christmas. Various kinds of sweet soups also came into vogue. All this, of course, greatly reduced the prominence of traditional Icelandic Christmas food. Moreover, for a long time afterward little ingenuity was expended on utilizing new technology for novel and tasty preparation of meat and fish. Icelandic cookery has hardly yet recovered from the invasion.

It is not clear what people drank in former centuries if they did not have ale, but most probably it was milk and whey. Coffee and tea were not imported until close to the middle of the 18th century, and for a long time after that were served only for a change on holidays, such as Christmas. Liquor was used in many places at Christmas, but not everybody had it on hand.

Christmas Banquets

The previous section dealt with food and beverage in ordinary homes, but in medieval times and even later it was clearly not uncommon that chieftains and other prominent people give great banquets at Christmas. There are many contemporary examples of Christian banquets in Sturlunga Saga. About Snorri Sturluson it says, in 1226: “That winter Snorri made Christmas toasts according to Nordic tradition. Numerous people attended.”

About Gissur Thorvaldsson, in 1241: “Gissur remained at Tunga that winter. He made a populous Christmas banquet, inviting his friends to stay until the Octave. On that occasion mead was mixed and ale brewed. A popular toast was held on the Octave, though one of short duration. Nearly 80 warriors took part.”

About Thordur Kakali, in 1242: “He then remained at home during the winter up until Christmas. At that time, he invited all the best people of the Western Fjords, making a great banquet ar Myrar . . . And as they departed, he gave gifts to many people, all of whom then became closer friends with him
than before.”

Thorgils Skardi was at Miklibaer (in Skagafjord) in the winter of 1257: “He remained at home until Christmas and was a lavish host, making a great Christmas banquet. At that time, he invited numerous wealthy farmers and gave them expensive gifts. It was a memorable occasion for the sake of hospitality, number of people, and good housing.”

(All the above chieftains were contestants in the struggle for power that finally led to the loss of Icelandic independence in 1262). The bishops of Holar also gave many parties at Christmas. The Norwegian Heinrekur Karsson invited Thorgils Skardi in 1252: “On Christmas Day the bishop arranged the seating. He put Thorgils on the dais next to himself, along with as many of his men as the dais would hold. The bishop invited Thorgils and all his retainers to stay for the duration of Christmas. The feast proceeded until the Twelfth Day with great mirth and good times. There was no shortage of good beverages and other provisions. On Twelfth Night the banquet reached a climax and the toasts came fast. Thorgils’ men became very drunk.”

Nor did Bishop Laurentius Kalfsson in the 14th century abandon the custom. His saga describes it as follows: “He always made a creditable Christmas banquet for all his clergy, pensioners, butler, and house matron, as well as all his other household staff, and everybody would be well feted.” It is also said that Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson used to have a banquet every year at New Years and invite to it all the most prominent people in the surrounding districts. But after his time there are few reports of great feasts at the bishop’s seat or anywhere else. It is strange that no stories seem to have survived of such banquets at Skalholt, though that must really be a coincidence. But from the Skalholt diocese there is an entry in a chronicle reporting the death in 1670 of the Rev. Thordur Jonsson of Hitardal (in the West): “The couple, Thordur and Helga, were very generous, easy with their money, and hospitable. They held a great banquet once each winter at Christmastide, to which all the most prominent people in the vicinity would be invited. It would last for a week.”

Christmas Presents

While Christmas presents were known in antiquity among kings and chieftains, especially on the continent, they have been common among ordinary people in Iceland only in the past 100 years at the most. It is true that people generally received some new piece of clothing and a new pair of sheepskin shoe’s, called Christmas shoes, from their masters, but these were not really personal presents and could just as well be regarded as a kind of Christmas bonus. In the* early 10th century, however, it had become a fairly general custom to give all the children, and even all members of the household, candles at Christmas. In those days, this was not at all a poor gift, because candlelight was incomparably brighter than that of the oil lamp. The candles were made of tallow, and molding them was one of the tasks that had to be done before Christmas. Then, when each person lit a candle by his bed, it is easy to imagine the holiday atmosphere created. By the late 19th century Christmas presents were rapidly spreading, and part of the reason may be that many more shops had been opened. Gifts then began to include such things as playing cards, soap, handkerchiefs, apron material, caps, scarves, and the like, and even books for the children. For example, Stefan from Hvitadal, who later became a well-known poet, was given the story of Snow White for Christmas in 1896. He was nine at the time.

Apropos of playing cards, it should be mentioned that by far the most common pastime at Christmas was playing cards. The most popular games were cribbage, matrimony, whist, and ombre. The general rule was that playing would not begin until the second day of Christmas, but then it was done far into the night. Among older people, the rule against playing on Christmas Eve and even on Christmas Day survived for a long time, and it still may.

It was not until World War II, or after 1940, that the prevalence and extravagance of Christmas presents increased to the degree that has since been common; at least, this was the case outside Reykjavik. That was not surprising. Christmas presents were not an old, ingrained tradition, and people were very poor during the first decades of the century; nor did the Depression years, 1930—40, help much. It may be said that the present plague of Christmas gifts followed the vaunted revolution of living standards among the working classes around 1942, from which the sellers of Christmas articles have certainly reaped a windfall.

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