The 26 days of Christmas

Christmas in Iceland is special for a lot of reasons, like the food, weird yule lads, short days and northern lights nights, but nothing beats Christmas in Iceland because we have 26 days of it.

Christmas starts 13 days before Christmas eve, when the first yule lad comes down from the mountains. After all 13 have come down, one by one per day, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas eve evening, usually around 6pm. We have smoked and boiled lamb with green beans and red cabbage, and open all our gifts that night, and Christmas day is spent at home with friends and family doing very little except eating the leftovers and cooking and baking more Christmas food.

Christmas Eve was spent eating smoked lamb with these two handsome men

The smelliest night of Christmas is arguably December 23rd, what we call Thorlaksmessa, when people boil pots of fermented stingray for hours without ever adding water, so the ever-increasing, pungent smell of ammonia quickly absorbs into your hair and clothes (and takes a couple of washes to get out).

The loudest day of Christmas is New Years Eve, which Icelanders more appropriately call Old Years night. Iceland is the only country in the world where you can actually hear the New Year arrive, since the intensity of fireworks climaxes at midnight like an out-of-tune percussion symphony. It’s also a pretty smelly night if there’s no wind, since all that smoke from a million kronur of explosives creates a fair bit of pollution.

The last of the fireworks

The hottest day of Christmas are the “brenna” or bonfires. On New Year’s Eve and the last day of Christmas, various neighborhoods around Reykjavík collect huge piles of inflammable junk – furniture, pallets, Christmas trees and even mattresses – and create fires as big as houses. It’s a way to clean out your closets, literally and figuratively, and burn away all the baggage from last year to start clean.

The last day of Christmas is the “Thirteenth” (þrettándinn), January 6 when the last of the 13 yule lads has returned back to the mountains. As I write this, Reykjavik has started to light up again, as everyone finishes the last of their fireworks. It’s only legal to fire fireworks during Christmas, so after midnight tonight you could technically be fined. The city will be even darker tomorrow since Christmas lights and decorations will also get put away. The sidewalks of Reykjavík have already started filling up with Christmas trees that won’t be needed to be cut down again til next year. The radio will stop playing Christmas music, and the harsh reality that the last day of Christmas does not mean the last day of winter will start to sink in. A couple of days ago, the street lights never shut off automatically because the cloudy skies and lack of snow meant the daylight never became bright enough to convince the sensors that it was day time.

the first Saturday ride of the year for these horses and horsepeople

For most, this is a time to buckle down the budget, face impossible new years resolutions, and start the year fresh and optimistic. We do have the assurance that days are getting longer, already for 2 weeks now, and we finally start to notice the difference. For the horse people in Reykjavik, its time to bring the riding horses into the stables and start training. For me, its a time to hole up and write a book, and book the cheapest one way ticket out of here until summer.

A New Year begins in Iceland

Me and winter aren’t the best of friends, and I usually like traveling the full 8 months of Icelandic winter, but if I’m going to take a break from traveling, the holidays are the best time of year to take a break at home.

Iceland has a very special Christmas season; it actually lasts for 13 days (arguably 26 if you count the days all the yule lads come to town and leave presents in your shoe), so the last day of Christmas, also called ‘the Thirteenth,’ happens after New Years.

New Years Eve in Iceland is also special; its one of the few cities in the world you can actually hear midnight happen. Millions of kronurs of fireworks are exploded and showered over Reykjavik between 11:30 and 12:15, and the skies are full of lights, colours and smoke. It’s a little like bombs over Baghdad, plus the possibility of Northern Lights in the background – try to find that somewhere else in the world.

downtown Reykjavik on Christmas eve

downtown Reykjavik on Christmas eve

The weather has been very cooperative. Over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there was the most festive sprinkle of fluffy snow flakes falling quietly down over an already white winter wonderland. Then there were some storms, rains, and plus 7°c weather that iced it up and washed it all way. But for New Years, everything went cold and crispy again, no snow or rain fall, enough snow on the ground to brighten the night, and the clear, still skies welcomed the colourful explosions that actually last the whole night, with a deafening climax around midnight.

New Years resolution #1: go for more walks

New Years resolution #1: go for more walks

Then everyone makes their New Years Resolutions; the gyms get totally overcrowded the first week of January. People exchange unwanted Christmas presents and go bonkers shopping the sales and old year clearances. And ‘the Thirteenth’ happens, on January 6th, which is the last day you can legally set off fireworks, so the last day of Christmas is also sent booming into the sky, with screams and screeches and flashes of lights.

Dad at his birthday Gala Dinner

Dad at his birthday Gala Dinner

January 7th was my fathers 65th birthday. We celebrated in black tie dress-code of course – he was finally home after 5 weeks in the hospital and officially retired, so now the old man’s really an old man. He’s recovering from kidney failure, which means hes attached to a dialysis machine every night, but free to play all day and evening. We started the date with a Baejarinns Beztu hotdog, then attended a Viennese Concert by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, and capped the night off at the Icelandic Chef Association Gala dinner at Harpa. We were seated one table away from the president, and rubbed shoulders with all sorts of important and/or wealthy guests, but explained to everyone he was a retired teacher and I was an unemployed tour guide and didn’t seem to feel excluded.

I'll miss this sight!

I’ll miss this sight!

Now it’s time to hit the road again. Christmas is over, New Years and birthday celebrations are behind us, and we can no longer burn our money in the form of fire works, so its time to go spend it on the road. First stop is Barcelona; why? Because I found a one way ticket for a direct flight (4hrs15mins!) for 80 euros and the days there are twice as long and twice as bright. Of course the weather is better than in Iceland, though not great at this time of year according to Spaniards, but having the sun shine on the top of my head and actually feel the heat of its rays is sometimes enough. Sunshine, here I come.

Christmas in Iceland

Christmas in Iceland is quite possibly the best place in the world to celebrate the holidays. Why? Because Icelandic Christmases last 26 days. Only today has christmas officially ended, since January 6th is the 13th day of christmas. Icelanders get a lot of holiday time and everything just shuts down on the days surrounding Christmas and New years, and everyone has somewhere to be surrounded by people they love and way too much food. Christmas food in Iceland is to die for: the first 3 days I was back home I ate 4 meals of hangikjöt og uppstúf (smoked lamb and potatoes in white sauce), my favourite. It goes well with pickled red cabbage and canned green beans, and laufabrauð (unlevened bread) goes good with anything, anytime. I also ate alot of foods that I can´t get anywhere else, namely flatkökur (flat bread), skyr (a yogurt like thing), cheap and fresh smoked salmon, sheep heads, and of course the best pylsur (hotdogs) in the world. Im salivating just writing about this stuff.

Stakkholt, my family's summerhouse in the countryside

Christmas is celebrated with family on Christmas eve, with a little dressing up, a fancy dinner, and gift exchange. I spent the evening with my dad, and for dessert we smoked hookah while listening to Van Morrison and Santana. After family time, most of town fills up every church for midnight mass; I went to Frikirkjan and watched Iceland’s lead pop singer, gay Pall Oskar, sing hymns in a sparkle suit jacket. Christmas is also fun because all your friends or family that live abroad come home for the holidays, so you get a chance to see people that you can’t always see. I took the chance to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen in a while by going to our summer cottage in the country side for a night – the ideal definition of a cozy night in. We spent some time outside too, trying to walk to a wild hot spring nearby that you can bathe in, but after barely making it accross the muddiest field and destroying all our shoes, only 2 of us actually made it across the tiny stepping stones to claim victory in the 40°C hotpot.

midnight from the top of Hotel Saga, overlooking the main building of the University of Iceland

The most impressive night during Christmas time in Iceland is undesputedly New Year’s Eve. As soon as it gets dark on the last day of the year, fire works start to fire off, slowly building up to the bombs-over-Baghdad chaos that happens when the clock strikes twelve. During the minutes before and after midnight, the city is lit up with the most beautiful array of fireworks, all colours and types, 360° around you. They say there’s a serious recession going on, but even with the recent spike in inflation, Icelanders still manage to blow up their money with something like 600 tonnes of fireworks. Atleast we’re not cheap when it comes to partying like its the New year. People stumble home the next day when the sun comes up, which isnt until 10 or 11 am.

However, with the end of Christmas season comes some sad realities. I was shopping today in the mall and they were taking down all the bright and shiny things since January doesnt get the glitz and glamour like Christmas does. Even though the days have started to get longer since the winter solstice, things just seem darker as all the houses take down their christmas lights and all the missing christmas decorations make things seem not as bright. It also feels colder since all the indoor time spent with family, dinners and parties starts to wind down. Its perhaps a little lonelier, with people no longer on holiday, returning back to school or work, and everything is open again as the hussle and bussle of Reykjavik life starts again. Yet somehow I love January since it makes you appreciate Iceland so much more in June, and the chance to have a comfy night in with a winter storm raging outside is actually one of the most coziest feelings I know. The chance to see some northern lights and wear your heaviest parka also make winter fun, and battling the incredible winds that sometimes blow me right over makes me feel tough and nordic 🙂