How to Spend the Winter Holidays in Iceland
If you think Iceland is dark and cold in the winter, you would be correct. It’s very much both, but that doesn’t mean the country isn’t alive with the bright lights, winter festivals, and traditions of the holiday season.
The Christmas season in Iceland officially starts on December 11th and stretches untl January 6th, with plenty of ways to celebrate all winter long.
Honor St. Þorlákur
St. Þorlákur became the patron saint of Iceland in 1984 when John Paul II officially canonized him. He was actually recognized as a saint by the Iceland parliament in 1198, but it took the Catholic church 800 years to get around to canonizing him. To date, he’s the only Icelandic saint of all time. St. Þorlákur embodied the kind, intelligent spirit of Iceland and eventually served as bishop of Skálholt.
Celebrate St. Þorlákur Day (Þorláksmessa) on December 23rd with a plate of putrid skate fish. Oh, yes, it tastes like it sounds, and no, you can’t skip this long-standing tradition. Pro tip: If you want to wish Icelanders well on this day, it’s pronounced “St. Thorlakur’s Day.”
If you’re not into that, just join the locals as they enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and roasted nuts downtown and take care of some last-minute Christmas shopping.
Get to Know the Icelandic 13 Yule Lads
If you grew up with a Coca-Cola branded Santa Claus sliding down your chimney with gifts and devouring all of your cookies, you might be disappointed to learn this isn’t a phenomenon in Iceland.
Christmas in Iceland last 26 days and rolls-out 13 Santa Clauses, otherwise known as the 13 Yule Lads. The first Yule Lad comes to town 13 days before Christmas Eve and the last one leaves on the Twelfth Night in January.
The Lads are historically horrifying, and once threatened to boil naughty children alive involving a creature called Grýla. Just in case these mafia Yule Lads need back-up, there was also a blood-thirsty Christmas Cat that ate anyone not wearing at least one item of new clothing. In 1746, parents were actually banned from torturing their terrified kids with stories of these mischievous Lads, who are now much nicer and more like America’s Elf on the Shelf that play harmless tricks.
Icelandic Yule lads – credit: Icelandair
If you want to get in on the Christmas fun, watch out for:
●Giljagaur (Gully Gawk)
Sleep, Eat, and Be Merry
Christmas Day in Iceland is all about relaxing, sleeping in, and spending time with loved ones before a big family dinner. Enjoy a dinner with your Happy Camper companions, or try to score an invitation to a traditional Christmas dinner of Hangikjöt or somked lamb, pease, pickled cabbage or herring, caramel potatoes, and more Scandanavian inspired dishes.
And good news for anyone still terrorized by those 13 Yule Lads. They start retreating into the mountains on Christmas Day, prompting hands up and praise emojis from the rest of Iceland.
You can also go out to eat on Christmas, but many things are closed in Iceland and what’s left will book up quickly. Make your restaruant reservations in advance and eat and drink slowly to savor the relaxed Christmas spirit. Options like Hi Noodle, Bazilika Reykjavík, Lækjarbrekka, Pho Vietnamese Restaurant, and Sjávarbarinn are usually safe bets on Christmas Day.
If you can’t find a reservation, ask about on-site eateries and pubs at some of Iceland’s larger campgrounds. You can also pick-up staples on Christmas Eve and indulge in snacks, sandwiches, and Icelandic candy for your own celebratory feast.
Celebrate Boxing Day
Annar í jólum, or Second Christmas, in Iceland is called Boxing Day in most other parts of the world. Like Christmas Day, Icelanders tend to sleep in and cozy up at home or a movie theater with loved ones. Only at night, they head out and party at the bars that stay open until late.
Of course, if you’re driving a Happy Camper, make sure to pick a designated driver as roads will be dark all day, and potentially icy. Consider staying at your campground and party with your new friends instead.
Ring in the New Year
CelebratingNew Year’s Eve in Iceland is a spectacular array of fireworks and bright lights where visitors and locals gather near. But first, you must see the televised Áramótaskaupið, or “Skaupið” for short. This satirical show ridicules the year’s events and makes you feel like the state of the world isn’t so bad after all.
After some hearty laughs and dinner, join a bonfire in areas like the oceanside Ægisíða or near the Valbjarnarvöllur sports area in Reykjavik. Warm-up, make some new friends, and then get ready for midnight fireworks.
You can see Icelandic fireworks in several areas, but the Hallgrímskirkja Church fireworks are legendary. Keep in mind that anyone can and does buy fireworks in Iceland and joins the celebration. Whether you’re in the countryside or in the middle of the action in Reykjavik, you’ll hear fireworks screeching from every corner of the country.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s really freaking cold in Iceland with pretty much no sunshine during the winter time. However, that doesn’t stop Icelanders from taking a dip on New Year’s Eve and throughout the winter. Swimming pools will exercise limited holiday hours, but you can find a place to take a spectacular New Year’s plunge here.
Take a dip in Iceland’s famous hot springs are also a popular way to warm-up during the New Year. Check on holiday hours with Blue Lagoon, Nauthólsvík geothermal beach, Laugardalslaug, Reykjavík, or Grettislaug to name a few.
Take a Tour
There’s plenty to do on New Year’s Day before the fireworks start popping off at midnight. Take a self-guided tour in your Happy Camper at some of the best attractions around Iceland.
Or take a guided tour to see more of the country. Glacier snowmobiling and hiking, touring Thngvellir, and seeing more of the volcanoes and waterfalls can be seen during the last bits of the year. Or take a night tour to see the Northern Lights for an other-worldly New Year’s eve experience. Just remember you’re not the only one with the brilliant idea to go exploring all day and night on New Year’s Eve. Make your plans early, or venture out on your own adventure.
Celebrate Twelfth Night (Þrettándinn)
Just because the new year is here doesn’t mean the holiday fun in Iceland is over. In fact, there’s another smaller New Year’s Eve celebration to enjoy.
January 6th makes the Twelfth Night and final night of the official Christmas season. Remember those terrifying turned mostly harmless Yule Lads? You might remember that motley crue started heading back into the mountains on Christmas Day, but Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer) doesn’t leave until the Twelfth Night.
However, the Twelfth Night is also a time for Icelanders to reconnect with nature and the “hidden people.” This is the time of year when elves, trolls, and other creatures are thought to appear and celebrate by singing and dancing. Wise Icelanders may share the folklore of the hidden people, or they may just join the rest of the fun.
Much like New Year’s, the smaller scale Twelfth Night is again about good food, bonfires, fireworks, and an overall celebratory vibe.