The Yuletide season today is very much a family affair. The family decorates the house and tree together and spends a great deal of time at home. Family gatherings are a main feature of Icelandic Yule. The season consists of:
Þorláksmessa - St. Thorlakur's Day - December 23rd
Iceland's major native Saint is heilagur Þorlákur Þórhallsson, or St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson, Bishop of Skálholt. He has two days dedicated to him: December 23rd, which commemorates his
death in 1193, and his other day, July 20th, which celebrates the exhumation of his bones. The main custom associated with Þorláksmessa is the partaking of a simple
meal of skata or skate. This custom, which originated in the West Fjords, has become traditional all over Iceland. The Yule tree is usually decorated on this evening. This is also a big shopping day for last minute gifts, with stores remaining open until midnight.
Jól - Yule/Christmas
Celebrations start in Iceland at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Yule Eve.
This may have descended from the old days, when a new day began not at midnight but at 6pm. Thus in Iceland there are thirteen rather than twelve days in the Yuletide season. There are also many traditional stories and much seasonal folklore. The Jólasveinar
or Yuletide Lads and their parents Grýla and Leppalúði are the most popular seasonal characters.
Traditional Yule food is Hangikjöt, smoked mutton. In times past a sheep
was often slaughtered before the beginning of the Yuletide season and a rich Kjötsúpa or mutton soup served. Another traditional delicacy, the Rjúpa or rock ptarmigan, started out as the poor man's dinner but is now an expensive meal. Grautur, Porridge, on the other hand, was in past times a delicacy in
Iceland because of the scarcity of grain. Another Yuletide specialty is Laufabrauð or leaf bread. This is very thin sheets of dough cut into
intricate patterns and fried.
Christmas gifts, Yule presents,
were rare until late in the 19th century. Summer presents were much more
common, though everyone in the family received a new item of clothing either before or at Yule. The new clothing was a sort of bonus for work well done. Tradition has it that those who did not receive a new garment would be captured by the Jólaköttur or yule cat.
Aðfangadagur - Christmas Eve/Yule Eve
Aðfangadagur is the day that all Icelandic children await impatiently, as after the evening meal they can open their Yule presents. TV transmission stops in Iceland around 5 p.m. on Aðfangadagur and only restarts at 10 p.m. Usually the family listens to Evensong on the radio then partakes of the evening's meal. Only then are presents opened and, according to the children, the real Yule begins. It is usually the immediate family that spends Aðfangadagur together.
The family often attends Church together on Yule.
The Cathedral of Reykjavík.
Jóladagur - Christmas Day/Yule Day
Jóladagur is usually reserved for the extended family. Children gather at their parents home, and a feast, usually of Hangikjöt, is eaten collectively. This is followed by cookies and iced cakes with whipped cream. The children bring their Yule presents to the celebration and compare and play together.
Annar Jóladagur - Boxing Day
Yet another day of feasting, usually siblings or close friends visiting each other and partaking of even more sumptuous food and pastry. (The period between Yule and New Year's is usually a time of recuperation in Iceland.)
New Year's Eve/New Year's Day
One of the most magical nights of the year is the night when the old year changes into the new. This night was also the eighth night of Yule. Cows gain human speech, seals take on human form,
the dead rise from their graves, and the Elves move house.
Hillfolk by Elísabet Stacy-Hurley
A traditional greeting to the Elves was:
The housewife was supposed to chant this on New Year's Eve.
Let those who want to, arrive
Let those who want to, leave
Let those who want to, stay
Without harm to me or mine.
Elfin gold could be obtained from the Elves by sitting at a crossroads waiting for them to pass by.
Bonfires on New Year's Eve have been lit in Iceland
since the late 18th century. In this century the custom of
"sprengja út árið", "blowing out the year" has been observed by detonating fireworks, and many families spend a small fortune on them. It is usually a night of great merriment, with the family spending the first part of the evening together. However, dances start a little before midnight and young people usually go to a dance.
Twelfth Night - January 6th
The last day of Yule, celebrated in latter years with bonfires and Elfin dances. Many of the magical happenings associated
with New Year's Eve are also supposed to occur on Þrettándinn.