Icelandic Christmas Classics

I have a confession to make: I love December. I love the food, I love the smells, I love the warmth of the light from the Christmas decorations and I love that it brings the best out in people. People are more compassionate, they are more willing to sacrifice their normal routines to spend time with their loved ones, they are more willing to do good deeds and they are just nicer somehow.

I know there are always a few grinches here and there, the people that hate everything about Christmas and walk around shopping malls with the weight of the world on their shoulders because despite hating Christmas presents they’re too codependent not to participate. But even their wickedest of looks and snarkiest remarks are not enough to ruin my December joy.

I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time I dreaded December like the plague (not that I worry much about the plague on a daily basis) and I spent the whole month being super tense and stressed. But something changed and now I even smile when I see IKEA advertising their Christmas stuff in October – something that a few years ago would have sent me straight to a month-long rant about capitalistic pigs and their need to ruin everything.

This December I’ve been watching a lot of classic Christmas movies (while I answer your e-mails at night from my couch) and it’s got me thinking about the difference in how different nations approach Christmas. I saw It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time, ploughed through some horrible made-for-TV Christmas movies on Netflix, watched Love Actually like I always do, watched half of Scrooged and laughed endlessly over Clark Griswald’s earnest but terribly over-ambitious attempts to bring his family some holiday cheer.

I know you can’t judge a nation by its movies but I assume that these Christmas movies are designed to evoke nostalgic memories of Christmases past in the viewer’s mind so there must be some truth to them, right? I mean, Bill Murray didn’t actually time travel in a yellow taxi but maybe people in New York do sometimes have to work on Christmas Eve like the actors trying to finish the Christmas Carol in Scrooged? And in most countries around us Christmas day is more important than Christmas eve.

These ponderings prompted me to share with you a few things that popped into mind about Icelandic Christmas when watching these movies.

Home Alone – going away for Christmas

Icelandic people mostly don’t leave their homes for Christmas – they go home. There’s always a few that decide they don’t want to deal with December and book a three-week all-inclusive holiday to Tenerife as soon as the days start to get shorter but for most people, Christmas is a time you spend with family. At home.

Icelanders that live abroad come home in big flocks over the holidays and every other home is filled with people sleeping on stupidly uncomfortable sofa beads and children being spoiled by grandparents that don’t understand what they did wrong for their kids to live so far away from them.

Before I met the boyfriend, I would go to my mother’s house on the 23rd and stay there until around the 26th. To give you some context, and help you understand how important home is on Christmas, I lived 20 minutes away by bus and could probably have walked there in an hour and a half.

Although the idea of spending Christmas on a faraway beach, sipping Mojitos, may sound tempting in theory – most people would never do it.

Love Actually – attending a school play on Christmas Eve

To an Icelander, this scene in the otherwise hugely popular Christmas movie, makes no sense at all.

Icelanders celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve or the 24th of December. That’s when you sit down to eat with your family, that’s also when we open the presents and then cuddle on the sofa until the wee hours of the morning, eating Quality Street chocolate, with a new book that came from one of the packages under the tree.

One of the few things that people do outside the home on this evening is going to church. There are special Christmas services in most churches either at 6 pm or 11:00 or 11:30 pm and they are an important tradition for many families – event though they probably don’t go to church any other day of the year.

People eat at home, they dress up and often the extended family is involved. When we spend Christmas with my family (we alternate spending Christmas Eve with my family and the boyfriend’s family) it’s my mum and her partner, the boyfriend and I, my siblings and our grandmother.

So Icelandic people would never go to the pub (they are closed, by law, anyway) or a school play on this day and very few eat out. Which is one of the reasons why there are hardly any restaurants open on this night.

Scrooged – working on Christmas Eve

Unless you are a health care professional, a staff member at a hotel or you work somewhere where somebody must be there 24/7 – you don’t work on Christmas Eve.

It has been particularly difficult for people who are visiting Reykjavík over the holidays to understand why there aren’t more restaurants open on the 24th or why they can’t go on a northern lights tour that night. Every year stores are staying open longer and more tours are offered on the 24th but I guess employers draw the line when it comes to the evening of the 24th. The don’t want to be the reason their employees can’t spend this very important time with the ones they love and the general attitude is that nobody should have to work on Christmas eve unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Although tourists and offering good service is important, family is just more important.

Elf – believing Santa Clause lives at the north pole

I don’t know how to break this to you but Santa does not live at the north pole. In fact, there is no Santa – there are just yule lads and they live in Mt.Esja. Except if you from any other town in Iceland than Reykjavík, then they live in whatever mountain is closest to that town.

In Iceland we have 13 santa clauses, or Yule Lads, that live in the mountains and come to town around Christmas. They are not your run of the mill jolly pink-cheeked Coca-Cola Santas but mischievous half human half trolls that traditionally left their cozy home in the mountains to cause havoc for us just humans. They have names like Door-Slammer, Pot-Licker and Candle-Moocher but their names usually respond to their preferred method of havoc causing.

Over the years though, the yule lads have lost their edge a little bit though and they are slowly morphing into santas in the more traditional sense. Instead of their once wicked ways they now come down from the mountains one by one to put treats into the shoes in the windows of Icelandic children that go to bed extra early in the hope that it will save them from the awful fate of the rotten potato. Kids are also getting smarter and now usually put a bigger shoe or a boot in the window to accommodate a bigger treat.

The yule lads have a mother called Grýla (who eats children that don’t behave) and a father called Leppalúði (who, to be honest, seems to be a bit of a deadbeat dad). As if they aren’t bad enough the children of Iceland also have to deal with the Christmas cat that eats anyone that doesn’t get something new to wear before Christmas. Obviously.

PS. I think my favorite is Elf. I haven’t watched it yet – I’m saving it for the evening of the 23rd when everything is ready for Christmas and all that is left is wait. And laugh. Because Buddy the elf is the best! 

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10 thoughts on “Icelandic Christmas Classics”

  1. Deanna says:

    What fun! Well written and full of things to touch the heart and make your readers smile. I’m still smiling here in California, USA. Thanks.

  2. Trish says:

    We love Elf too!
    Merry Christmas Auður xx

  3. Judith says:

    Elf is a great choice. Thanks for sharing some of the traditions you follow.
    I also recommend “The Christmas Story”. It is funny and very nostalgic of American holidays during the 1940s.

    Happy Christmas!

  4. Kathy Shinnick says:

    Another vote for Elf. Also watch “A Christmas Story”
    I was struck by how brave Icelandic children are. Graylag was at te museum and all the kids were laughing and pulling her tail while she threatened them. In comparison,all Santa wants is to give toys and many kids scream and cry bloody murder at the sight of him.
    Happy Christmas Auder.

  5. Cecilia says:

    I had just written a long comment about Christmas Eve in Italy, then got my times table wrong, and said 8×4 is 24 when it’s 8×3 and I had to go back and lost my comment because I didn’t pay enough attention in maths class…

    Anyway! As I was saying, before my mathematical lapse, Christmas Eve is the more important day in Italy too! Shops stay open to some extent because they have to – consumer pressure, I guess – but otherwise people stay home, prepare a sumptuous fish dinner (never meat on Christmas Eve!), then open presents after dinner. After that, midnight mass for the more energetic. Presents at Christmas is a relatively recent thing. My parents are in their mid 70s and when they were children they would get presents on 6 January. According to the Italian tradition, you hang up your stocking when you go to bed on 5 January and an old woman called Befana goes around the rooftops and delivers presents if you’ve been good or a lump of coal if you’ve been bad. I think there’s still a bit of confusion about who delivers presents at Christmas, as my cousins used to get presents from Father Christmas and Baby Jesus combined… What can I say, new fashions arrive and everything changes.

    1. mm Auður says:

      Haha, I’m sorry about the math confusion – it’s the only way to keep the spammers at bay 🙂

      I find it amusing that Father Christmas and Baby Jesus are teaming up on presents – they are an unlikely pair 🙂

      I remember the 6th of January thing from when I was living in Spain.

  6. Danielle says:

    Scrooged in my go to Xmas film. From the ‘lalalalal’ as the stars go around the mountain in the studio branding to the song at the end, it suits me just fine. As kids, it was Santa Claus the movie, but that one has kind of lost it’s appeal now lol.

    In general i’m not a huge christmas fan. i like that i get to see friends and family (and gifting to them), but apart from that something about it always seems a bit sad to me, but i think i just file that under ‘things i never get over’ that just happened around this time of year. I think if i had kids it’d prob be different. Really i should take advice from ‘Scrooged’ and lighten up!! When i have a proper house and not a tiny flat i might even put up xmas decorations 🙂 mostly i just like time off work, sleeping and eating 😀

  7. kath g. says:

    Great post! I love what you describe. Hope it was just as fun and cozy this year, and that your 2017 gets off to a super start. Cannot wait to come to Iceland someday — on top of my ‘to visit’ list! And I now understand that there are better times to visit than at Christmas, good to know, and certainly makes sense.

  8. Jayne says:

    I’m just taking this opportunity whilst the (my) world is quiet to say thank you Audur. Your writings have bought me so much pleasure. I fell in love with Iceland, its people and philosophies when we camped for a week one chilly September. Your efforts are always appreciated. So full of common sense, fun, inspiration and passion. Best wishes for 2017.

    1. mm Auður says:

      Awww – same to you! 🙂

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