“Rotten” Skate and Shopping Fury Skip to content

“Rotten” Skate and Shopping Fury

Today is the last day before Christmas, known as Thorláksmessa (“The Mass of St. Thorlákur,” Iceland’s patron saint). The day is celebrated by eating putrefied skate and buying the last Christmas presents.

Skólavördustígur in downtown Reykjavík and Hallgrímskirkja church. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

Thorláksmessa is celebrated in the memory of Thorlákur “the Holy” Thórhallsson, who was Bishop at Skálholt in Iceland in the 12th century. He died December 23, 1193, which became a holiday in 1199. In 1985 Pope John Paul II appointed Thorlákur “the Holy” as the patron saint of Iceland.

The Catholic Church in Iceland is the third largest religious community in Iceland and nine Catholic churches offer services in various parts of the country.

The tradition of eating putrefied skate originates in the West Fjords, but is now common in all parts of the country. The fish delicacy is usually served boiled with potatoes, turnips and hamsatólg, melted sheep fat.

People who want to avoid bringing the stench of skate to their homes—it smells strongly of ammonia—order the fish at restaurants instead. Serving skate on December 23 is becoming increasingly popular at restaurants in Iceland.

Icelanders are known to spend considerable amounts of money on December 23, which is traditionally the last day of shopping before Christmas. To make sure everybody finishes their shopping in time for Christmas, stores remain open until at least 11 pm.

People who have finished their shopping often go downtown in the evening of Thorláksmessa to meet up with friends, admire Christmas decorations or go to cafés to have a cup of hot chocolate and exchange Christmas greetings.

On December 23, a peace walk always takes place in downtown Reykjavík.

Click here to read more about the tradition of eating putrefied skate.

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