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.
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 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.
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.