Rotten skate and shopping fury Skip to content

Rotten skate and shopping fury

By Iceland Review

Today is the last day before Christmas, known as Thorláksmessa (“The Mass of St. Thorlákur”). The day is celebrated with eating rotten skate and buying the last Christmas presents.

Thorláksmessa is celebrated in the memory of Thorlákur “the Holy” Thórhallsson, who was Bishop in Skálholt in Iceland on the 12th century. He died on 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 country’s third largest religious community and nine Catholic churches offer services in various parts of Iceland.

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

People who want to avoid bringing the stench of rotten 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.

“We have served skate for 12 years,” Ottó Magnússon, chef at restaurant Humarhúsid and one of its three owners, tells “We serve it in the traditional way with brennivín [Icelandic aquavit].”

“It is very popular among colleagues or groups of friends to come to the restaurant and have skate for lunch. Those who don’t like it usually have salted fish,” Magnússon says. “We choose to serve skate only at lunch so the ammonia stench won’t ruin the appetite of our evening guests, who might like to enjoy a fancier type of dinner,” he adds.

Icelanders are known to spend a lot 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 stay open until 11 pm.

People who have finished their shopping often go downtown on 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.

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