News Dec 08, 2017

Icelandic Christmas Traditions

Learn all about Iceland's cultural traditions and customs during the holiday season.


It’s all about tradition

Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and marks the official start of the Christmas season in Iceland. It is when things start getting magical: lights shining through the winter darkness, concerts and celebrations, and festive spirits. One of the longest-standing traditions of the season, and another sign that Christmas is imminent, is the lighting of the Oslo tree, a big evergreen given to Reykjavík residents by the city of Oslo and put up in Austurvöllur Square.

Advent lights

Come the end of November, Advent lights – arguably the most popular of the Icelandic Christmas decorations – are staples in most Icelandic homes. There are two main types: the Advent wreath, which has four candles, one lit on each Sunday of Advent; and the triangle-shaped, seven-candle electric candelabra, which is normally placed on windowsills to shine out into the winter darkness.


Christmas tree

Most Icelanders use real trees, as opposed to artificial ones. Some are grown in Iceland, while others are imported. The tradition is to decorate them just a day or two before Christmas, on the 23rd, or even on Christmas Eve day. They remain up for about two weeks, which most Icelanders consider the perfect length of time. After that, they start to lose their lustre, and who likes a dry, bare needle-less Christmas tree?

A gift in the shoe


One of the best Christmas traditions, particularly for Icelandic kiddies, is the shoe-in-the window tradition. This gets underway 13 days before Christmas, when the Icelandic Yule Lads, who live in the mountains, start coming to town, one per night. Before they go to sleep, kids take one of their best shoes and leave near an open window. Come morning – presto! – the shoe will contain a small gift from the Yule Lad that arrived on that night. However, this only works if the child has been good – if he or she has been bad, the shoe will contain only one lonely potato.

The book flood


Iceland sells more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and the vast majority are sold in the lead-up to Christmas. In Iceland this is known as the Christmas Book Flood. The tradition in Iceland is that everyone must receive at least one book for Christmas to take to bed on Christmas Eve along with some chocolates. And so, beginning in November, hundreds of books are released onto the market and the talk is all about books – in the media, in the workplace, among family and friends, and at Christmas parties. And once Christmas is over and the books have been read, everyone’s a critic, giving their views and opinions of that latest tome and whether it is as good, or better, as the author’s last one.

Loved ones remembered


The Yuletide season is a time when Icelanders remember their departed loved ones. To really appreciate this tradition, you’d have to understand the huge part that the family plays in Icelandic Christmas celebrations.

On December 24th, and often on New Year’s Eve day as well, many families will come together at the graves of their loved ones and place on them a candle or some sort of light, to show that they are remembered and missed. The cemeteries look amazingly beautiful in the midwinter darkness, all lit up with candles, particularly if there is snow. Hólavallargarður churchyard from 1832 situated at Suðurgata, overlooking the Tjörnin lake in the western part of Reykjavik, is the most central one and definitely worth a stroll around on a snow-white winter afternoon.