Iceland’s version of Christmas is called Yule/Jol and began before the advent of Christianity.
The “drinking of Yule” was part of the Yule celebrations in the Icelandic Sagas. Many stories and poems refer to the feasts, farmers drinking Yule ale together, and bringing back malt from America to make the ale. Chieftains would invite many people to Yule, whereas farmers may drink Yule ale among friends. The chieftains would present their guests with gifts after feasting for several days. Some of the food included lamb meat, ham, Rjupa, a wild bird, and Skate, a large flat fish. Potatoes, vegetables, cookies and frosted cakes rounded out the meal. Both the farms and the chieftains decorated their houses with decorative materials.
Before the late 19th century, Yule gifts were rare and frequently consisted of clothing which was also considered a bonus for a job well done. If you did not receive a new piece of clothing, folklore had it that you would be captured by the Yule cat, which was a black, mean cat. Summer presents were more common.
One tradition is for children to put a shoe in the window from December 12 until Christmas Eve. If they have been good, they receive a gift and if not, a potato. On December 23rd, St Þorlákur, is celebrated. Stores are open late but then close for three days. Yule Eve, equivalent to our Christmas Eve, is when children can open their Yule presents after the evening meal. Television is actually stopped in Iceland from 5 to 10 pm.
Bonfires, visits, and fireworks are the activities for New Year’s Eve. Iceland’s Christmas season ends on January 6, when supposedly elves and trolls celebrate by dancing and singing with Icelanders.
To read more about Iceland’s Christmas and the thirteen Yule Lads, read our article “Christmas in Iceland”.