Icelandic Winter Traditions

New Years eve, and the few days leading up to it, are very explosive, literally. Icelanders buy hundreds and hundreds of tons of fireworks and explode them downtown, in backyards, harbours, farms, you name it. Reykjavik is the only city in the world where I can actually hear midnight coming, as the fireworks get more and more intense around Hallgrimskirkja, the loudest climax is the moment when the New Year has arrived.

The Christmas Market in Hafnafjordur

With 26 days of Christmas, there are a lot of traditions that Icelandic people keep up to fill the dark winter season. There’s even a small Christmas Market ´Jólaþorpið´started in Hafnafjordur, and free ice skating in Ingolfstorg downtown for all the days in December. Then of course there are the famous, or infamous, Yule lads, the 13 Christmas elves who each have a special, mischievous role to play. There´s the hungry ones: Sausage Stealer, Skyr Gobbler, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Meat Hook, who loves smoked lamb, and Stubby, who likes eating pan crusts.

There´s the creepy ones, Sheep harassing Sheep-Cote-Clod, Door Sniffer and the Window Peeper. Then there’s the annoying ones: the noisy Door Slammer, Gully Gawk who likes to jump out and scare people, and Candle Sneaker, who’s also hungry because they’re used to stealing candles made of animal fat and eating them.

ice skating in Ingolfstorg

These fine examples of Icelandic folklore are the sons of a large, ugly, child-eating troll named Gryla, and her black cat eats Children who don’t receive any new clothes for Christmas. The Yule lads are not all bad – they bring down a present to put in your shoe, one by one, for the 13 days leading up to Christmas, unless you misbehave – then you get a potato or a piece of coal. Then 13 days after Christmas, the Yule lads return back to Gryla in her mountain, and the last day of Christmas is Jan 6, but its only a few weeks to wait until Thorrablot, Icelands other, rather unappealing, winter tradition.

Thorrablot used to be a pagan festival, dedicated to pagan gods in the fourth month of winter, previously known as Thorri. It’s basically a midwinter party (end-Jan to mid Feb in the modern day calendar) dedicated to eating sour and fermented foods, the same ram testicles, sheep head, rotten shark, liver and blood sausages as the vikings ate before the modernisation or Christianisation of Iceland. Its also a drunken time, when farmers and fishermen and city folk alike gather in huge groups (a dinner for hundreds of people sometimes), organising with the next county or community to make sure they don’t hold the festival on the same night, so that everyone can go to more Thorrablots and drink enough beer and brennivin to wash all the sour food down and hangover away. Sounds like a blast, right?

midday in midwinter

My favourite Þorrablóts are happening around Feb 1st in the north of Iceland, be sure to check out Varmahlíð or Hunaver´s schedule, or just search Thorrablot in Facebook events to be sure to find the one closest to you. Or, if sour food isn´t for you, there´s always hottubs and the outdoor bathing culture we all love and need to get us through a long Icelandic winter.

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