Volunteer Organisation Throws Christmas Ball for Ukrainian Children

Ukrainian families living in Iceland were treated to a Christmas Ball on Saturday. The party was the culmination of a year of events and relief efforts led by the volunteer-run organization Flottafólk and included a banquet and a visit from Iceland’s Yule Lads. Iceland Review spoke to one of the event organisers, Markús Már Efraim, about the festive event.

Also known as the Ukrainian Refugee Center in Iceland, Flottafólk (whose name in Icelandic, Great People, is a pun on the word flóttafólk, which means refugee), “was founded by likeminded volunteers at the start of the war to provide relief for the Ukrainian refugees coming to Iceland,” says Markús. Saturday’s Christmas Ball was the organization’s biggest event of the year and was made possible thanks to volunteers, “both local and Ukrainian, and the goodwill of the local community,” individuals and businesses alike, who donated gifts for the children.

The ball treated 400 guests—mostly Ukrainian children and their families—to a delicious holiday banquet including everything from traditional Icelandic Christmas fare such as hangikjöt to pizza, laughs Markús, “for those whose tastebuds are not made for smoked lamb.”

After eating their fill, the children got to dance around a giant Christmas tree with some visiting Yule Lads, who then handed out gifts. Members of the Ukrainian community also staged a dance performance.

A home away from home

“Our hearts are full of pure gratitude to those who have been taking care of us for many months already!” wrote attendee and teacher Tanya Korolenko in the Facebook group “Ísland fyrir Úkraínu” (‘Iceland for Ukraine’). “The spirit of Christmas is everywhere now. It’s beautiful…And all Ukrainians here, in Reykjavik, are thanking you heartily for allowing us to feel it, to enjoy it ourselves! It means a lot!”

“Thanks to Flottafolk and its keen volunteers Ukrainians get a HOME to meet every Tuesday, they have plenty of help with practical issues like clothes and hygiene,” continued Tanya. “But what touches me the most is when people take care of other people’s feelings. Like you did today.”

Indeed, Flottafólk has been providing relief to the Ukrainian refugee community in Iceland since the beginning of the war, Markús explains. “Relief has been in the form of food, clothing, jobs, events and field trips for kids, educational programs, psychological support, childcare and basically everything necessary. This winter our biggest focus has been on the distribution of clothes and necessities,” he continues, noting that these distributions take place twice a week at Neskirkja and the community centre in the Grandi neighbourhood on the west side of Reykjavík.

“During the open houses we often get visits from local educators and speakers or do something special like concerts, and traditional gingerbread-making and decoration.”

Plans to expand in the New Year

Invigorated as the volunteers are by their joyful celebration on Saturday, Flottafólk has even bigger plans for the new year, says Markús. “We would like to expand the educational programs, including various art workshops, but need more space as the community centre we have access to has its own extensive programming.”

“One of the things we have planned for the new year is a writing workshop for kids,” says Markús, which would be co-taught by himself and Tanya Korolenko. “This would hopefully culminate in a bilingual book with the children’s writing and illustrated by Ukrainian artists.”

It seems clear that Flottafólk and its ongoing, collaborative efforts have helped to create a strong sense of kinship between local volunteers and members of the newly arrived Ukrainian community, something that Markús Már is quick to affirm. “I had no connections to Ukraine before the war, but as a volunteer and now, project manager for the community centre and educational programs, I feel strong kinship with the Ukrainian people. The refugee community has shown great gratitude to all of us volunteers and given back in so many ways.”

Photos by Alesia Kovalova (Алеся Ковальова)

Icelanders Buying More Locally-Grown Christmas Trees

Christmas tree santa Iceland

Though imported trees still make up the majority of Christmas tree sales in Iceland, locally grown trees are steadily growing in popularity, Bændablaðið reports. Imported Christmas trees decreased from 37,147 to 24,441 between 2019 and 2020, while local tree sales rose from 7,225 to 8,134. More families are buying their trees from local forestry associations, where they can pick and even cut down their own trees.

Ragnhildur Freysteinsdóttir, an environmental scientist at the Icelandic Forestry Association, told RÚV that cutting down your own tree has certain advantages. “Some people may want tall and thin, or short and fat [trees]. They maybe don’t want the totally standard trees that you get at the store. So it’s an opportunity for them.”

Buying local has benefits

As Bændablaðið points out, the benefits of buying local Christmas trees are many. Purchasing one tree enables local foresters to plant dozens more, with a net positive effect on carbon storage. The Reykjavík Forestry Association (Skógræktarfélag Reykjavíkur), for example, planted 50 trees for each one sold last year. Local trees also carry a smaller carbon footprint in other ways: due to Iceland’s climate and geography, local foresters rarely use pesticides in their cultivation. Furthermore, imported trees present a risk of bringing in pests that could potentially affect Icelandic vegetation.

See Also: Húsavík Residents Vote on Town Christmas Tree

Among local trees, the most popular species is the beach pine, accounting for 62.4% of local Christmas tree sales last year. The sitka spruce comes next with 14.3% of sales, followed by red spruce at 11.4%.

Christmas Tree Democracy: Húsavík Inhabitants Vote on Town Tannenbaum

For the past four years, residents of Húsavík, North Iceland, have voted on which evergreen will decorate the town centre as its Christmas tree. This year’s tree won by a landslide, getting 180 out of 200 votes. Many of the residents submit trees from their yards in the running.

Smári J. Lúðviksson, environmental manager of Norðurþing municipality, says there are plenty of trees in Húsavík and around the town to choose from. “There’s been a lot of growth in town and we are starting to get some big and thick spruce trees here, and they are consequently becoming too big for front yards, so we’re trying to utilise them by using them as the town Christmas tree.”

City authorities take care of cutting down the winning tree, setting it up, and lighting it in the town centre. Children from the local preschool and primary school were present when the tree was lit and sang carols and danced around the tree according to Icelandic tradition.

Smári says the goal of holding a vote is for residents to choose a Christmas tree they’re happy with. “Now it’s the residents themselves that get to choose the tree and if you’re not happy with the tree that was chosen then you could have voted. You could call it Christmas tree democracy.”

Novel Home Delivery of Christmas Trees in Reykjavík

Many families consider the trip to buy a Christmas tree an unmissable holiday tradition. However, RÚV reports that one Search and Rescue team in Iceland has adapted their tree sales to this year’s pandemic and distancing regulations by setting up an online Christmas tree store with home delivery. The Air Ground Rescue Team of Reykjavík (FBSR) says online sales are going well and overall sales are up 250% compared to last year.

“People want contactless interactions, they want to get a Christmas tree without having to go out among people,” says Hjalti Björnsson, a volunteer at FBSR. He says the team started an online store in response to this demand and it’s working like a charm. “There’s a huge increase in sales here, we have 250% higher sales compared to the same time last year.”

In FBSR’s online store, customers can select the species and height of their tree, and either pick it up or have it delivered. Hjalti says that if a customer is not happy with the specific tree delivered, the team is happy to exchange it.

“Oslo” Christmas Tree Felled in Heiðmörk Forest

Mayor fells the city's Christmas tree

Reykjavík Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson felled the Oslo Christmas tree in Heiðmörk this Saturday. This year, the tree is a 12,40 m (40 ft) Sitka spruce, about 60 years old, and will be the city’s official Christmas tree on Austurvöllur square in the city centre.

The city of Oslo has given the people of Reykjavík a Christmas tree for decades. A few years ago, the environmental impact of transporting the tree was considered superfluous and since then, the “Oslo tree” has come from Heiðmörk forest on the outskirts of the city. Instead of the Christmas tree, Oslo sends books to Reykjavík elementary schools.

Christmas comes early in Reykjavík this year.

This year’s tree was likely planted on the Reykjavík Forestry Society’s 10th anniversary, but this year, the Society is nearing its 70th year. The tree will take its usual place at Austurvöllur and be decorated to delight passersby. The lighting ceremony, on the first Sunday of the Advent, Nov, 29, usually a fun family event that marks the start to the official Christmas season, might be different than usual due to the pandemic.

Another Christmas tree was felled in Heiðmörk this Saturday, to be sent to the Faroe Islands and decorated outside Tórshavn Tinghús. Reykjavík sends the tree as a mark of gratitude for the friendship of the Faroese, a fairly recent tradition as the first tree was sent in 2013. This year’s Tórshavn tree is an 11m (36 feet) Sitka spruce and Eimskip will transport the tree to the Faroe Islands.

Oslo Christmas Tree 2020
Reykjavík

Akureyri Local Astounded by Dated Christmas Tree Tradition

Every year, the city of Akureyri puts up a Christmas tree on Ráðhústorg plaza.

This year, Akureyri local Aðalheiður Ingadóttir invited the city to put up her tree, a sizable spruce from her backyard that she planned on felling, RÚV reports.

The city turned down the offer, explaining that every year it received a Christmas tree from its sister town Randers in Denmark – a tradition stretching back 30 years.

Ingadóttir – who believed such traditions were a thing of the past – was astounded. Dissatisfied with the city’s rationale, she doubled down on her offer, reminding city officials that there was still plenty of time to call off the shipment.

“There are still two months until Christmas.”

In an interview with RÚV, Ingadóttir stressed that it was not about her tree, in particular; rather, the idea of importing a Christmas tree from Denmark amid an upswing in forestry – and when the Kjarnaskógur forest lay just south of the city – was absurd.

Something to Review

Asked by RÚV whether the tradition was at odds with the city’s environmentally-friendly policy, Guðríður Erla Friðriksdóttir – Director of Akureyri’s Environmental and Engineering Division – was amenable to the suggestion.

It’s something that we must review.”

Friðriksdóttir conceded that there are many more trees on municipal-owned land today when compared to 30 years ago, making the option of putting up homegrown trees viable. This would be a positive step for the city, Friðriksdóttir added.

Discontinuing the tradition with Randers has probably been up for discussion at one point or another. But no decision has been made. It is, nonetheless, a suggestion worth considering.”

A Dying Tradition?

As noted in the above-mentioned article by RÚV, the giving of Christmas trees between sister towns has become less common over the years. Akureyri is not the only town that receives a Christmas tree from abroad. The town of Hafnarfjörður receives its tree from Germany. Christmas trees have also been sent from Iceland abroad, e.g. Fljótsdalshérað, which sends its sister town in Runavik, in the Faroe Islands, a Christmas tree. The municipality of Árborg receives trees from citizens looking to get rid of them and uses them come Christmas.