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.

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.

Home for the Holidays

There’s no place like home, especially for the holidays, and even more so when you’ve got two places to call home. It sure was festive to be in the Holy land in the days leading up to Christmas, but arriving in Reykjavik on December 23rd to a white winter wonderland and -10°c couldn´t have felt better. The days were super short but the nights were lit up with Christmas lights, northern lights and starry skies. I stuffed my belly with traditional Icelandic Christmas food – my favourites being delicious smoked and boiled lamb leg and home-baked flat bread (´laufabrauð´ or leaf bread – try it!). Some other delicacies I avoided, like rotten sting ray (stay away from ´skata´), but of course i stuffed my face with Icelandic hot dogs, appelsin og malt (a mix of non-alcoholic malt and orange soda) and regular flatbread that´s best for breakfast with sliced lamb.

the brightest part of the day in Dad´s valley

the brightest part of the day in Dad´s valley

I flew to Seattle on Boxing day, where me and my best friend Mike celebrated by finishing half a dozen bottles of assorted whiskies in 2 nights. Then it was up to Vancouver to have a sister day and celebrating my older sister not getting married on December 29th (yes, it was a momentous occasion, the guy is a creep and doesn´t deserve even the small toe of Kristjana´s left foot). Grandma and mom have turned into very similar grumpy old women, but I guess it happens to most mothers when their kids don´t stick around to keep them young and cool or in the loop.

a friends dog at his cabin

a friends dog at his cabin

But anyway, this isn´t a food blog and my mouths watering, but I´ll emphasize again how refreshing, clean, crisp and amazing it was to have a really cold, wintery christmas, making the inside of any home or shop (and outdoor hottubs and public swimming pools too) feel ultra cozy and the festive feeling of evening last almost the whole day. I celebrated with Dad and his neighbour, where we mostly just exchanged chocolates as gifts, but I was thrilled to find some Christmas cards addressed to me in the mail box and small gifts from friends come popping up when they made appearances.

NYE crew keeping it cozy in Whistler

NYE crew keeping it cozy in Whistler

New Year´s was a real highlight, a reunion of UBC classmates in even snowier, cozier, whiter Whistler where we house partied like we were still freshmen. We lit firecrackers inside and outside of my friends cabin and drank way too many bad shots of bad tequila and gentleman´s jack, which makes a gentleman out of noone. My hangover lasted 2 days, which is a sign you´re getting old, but 3 days later I´m on a plane to the Caribbean to heal all wounds and work on my tan. A week of temperatures below zero is about all I can handle anyway.

New Years in Oslo

Maya's Mike carves our Norwegian leg-of-lamb

Maya’s Mike carves our Norwegian leg-of-lamb

I needed to get home from West Africa through Europe, and Norway seemed like an excellent stopover place. God knows London and its airport are no place to change flights, and my photography friend Mike Reiter wanted to drag me to the end of the world in Svalbard. Instead he convinced two of our engaged friends to join us, Maya and Maya’s Mike, and they traveled around Norway before we all met up in Oslo for New years. I have a wonderful Norwegian friend, a specialist in all things viking and Old Norse, so we stayed with her for 3 days to celebrate the arrival of 2014.

frolicking down the empty streets of downtown Oslo

frolicking down the empty streets of downtown Oslo

I spent the first night with her trying to explain my new Californian friends that would be overtaking her apartment, and almost peed myself jumping up and down in excitement when I knew they’d arrived downstairs. We drank terrible Senegalese alcohol as I did my best to convince them that Africa was a wonderful place, despite my horrible tales, and ate like kings and queens with home-cooked meals while the rest of Oslo shut down for the holidays.

We took a midnight stroll on New Years eve, trying our best to avoid being hit by stray fireworks at midnight, and watched the city (literally) explode at 12 am. We were jealous of all the people around us lighting up sparklers, but still too preoccupied ducking from nearby firework launching, and popped a few bottles of carbonated something to ring in the new year. We walked home the long way, doing shimmy dances to warm up, and tried avoiding being criminalized for disorderly public behavior (we may or may not have urinated on public property a.k.a. the grave yard a a government building). Maya tried to scare Mike away from the grave yard with ghost warnings, but what can you do? You gotta go when you gotta go.

karaoke time

karaoke time

New Years day was also spent walking around, a little more sober, but just as mischievously. After we reached the Opera house, nightfall had already fallen, but it was charming to see the empty streets and Akershus fortress lit up by only street lights. We weren’t lucky enough to see any northern lights, but we were lucky enough to spend the first hours of 2014 singing karaoke in the kitchen of Liv’s Philipino neighbours.

walking ontop of the Oslo opera house

walking ontop of the Oslo opera house

Me and Mike didnt make it to Svalbard, but we did make it to the arctic circle and frolicked around Kirkenes and the Russian-Norwegian border with huskies and snow hotels. We’ll be going to Svalbard next February to stay at the Ship in the Ice hotel, but first we’ll meet in California for Maya and Maya’s Mike’s wedding. It’ll be just as merry there, but alot warmer and brighter!

Holiday Feasting and Dysfunctional Families

My parents had 3 daughters together, all of us born in Iceland, but raised most of our lives by our mother in Canada. Though we kept many of our Icelandic traditions and some Icelandic culture, we lost the language and became more Canadian. My mother is Guyanese, and imparted much of her British Guyanese influence onto us as well, so we grew up in quite the international, multi-cultural home. She dated an Italian, a Brit, most recently a Chinese guy, and married and divorced an Indian Guyanese guy during the time we lived in Canada. But we never really had a man around the house, since my grandmother helped raise us and we were barely allowed to keep male company without being chastised.

I went through a tomboy phase in my teenage hood, had only male friends, dreamed of having a brother, and wished I had a father. When I graduated university, I decided to move back to Iceland and be with my dad back home. Since then, I had the dilemma every year to decide whether I should spend the holiday season in Canada or Iceland, and always hoped the family could have just one more Christmas together.

my family feast on Christmas Eve

This Christmas and New Years was the first I spent in Iceland together with my entire family since 1992. My mom, dad, sisters and I had Christmas together in Canada in 1994, but it didnt turn out so great since my parents had just recently divorced and my mom had emigrated us all to Canada without telling my dad. I guess time does heal all, so 17 years later, they talked about things other than custody or money, and us sisters all grown up appreciated having both our parents in the same room to contribute to another happy family memory.

It was quite the dysfunctional occasion though. My parents get a long okay when we’re around, but they couldn’t be left alone since my dad has no patience for my mom and my mom didn’t think it was appropriate to stay at his house. They both know they’re excellent cooks and want to parent us, but now we’re all grown up and scolded them more than they scolded us. My youngest sister is engaged to be married and somehow acts like she can’t wait to start her own (more normal) family. My eldest sister wanted everything to go smoothly but is an unspoken, passive aggressivist, and I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to keep everyone busy and entertained… which wasn´t easy with record snow falls keeping us on the verge of getting stuck every time we had to go anywhere or park the car. But we only had a week and couldn´t let weather get in the way of or plans, so I was still the 24/7 driver, tourist guide, daily planner and phone secretary. However, I never minded since I was royally awarded with food feasts centered around family time every day they were here.

the first seconds of 2012

My mom has a sister in Iceland who married an Icelandic man and started a family here. My mom stayed with her and we visited our Aunty and cousins often for breakfasts, lunches and dinners prepared large enough for an entire army. We ate traditional smoked lamb with fixings, grilled leg of lamb with Icelandic mushroom gravy, lamb saddle and sheep head. On Christmas night we had lamb curry and roti, and Christmas morning we had Pepperpot, a delicious Guyanese dish made of oxtail and lamb

adding oxtail to the pepperpot

neck that takes days to cook. My friend Þráinn, one of the top chefs in Europe, came over and cooked some fine-dining langoustine for us one night. We tried every Christmas beer brewed in Iceland, and stuffed our bellies full of cookies and chocolate after every meal.

We visited our half brother, our old neighbours, and met many of my friends, including 3 hunters who fed us reindeer steak and reindeer carpaccio. We made it through the days with coffee and tea, leftover dinners, and hot dogs from hot dog stands. We rang in the new year with sparkling wine and almost got blown up by a wayward firecracker my cousin Svanur lit up too close to the balcony. We tried to make it to Vestmann Islands to visit our relatives from Dad´s side, but the weather wouldn´t allow it, or else we would have gotten to try some puffin and dried sea weed.

After a week of stuffing our faces and functioning like a family unit once again, we all had a great time secured by hundreds of photos to keep every moment of the holiday  memorable. I like watching Modern Family to remind myself we´re just one of many dysfunctional families, with an ever-evolving definition of family unit. I appeciate how unique my family is – growing up apart, getting divorced, getting engaged, living in different countries – and learnt that it doesn´t affect our family ties, since these are just the things that make us normal. I guess all families have some dirt under the carpet, with some weird element going on, so we’d be abnormal if we weren’t a little dysfunctional.

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 🙂