Christmas in Iceland
In Iceland Christmas starts at 6 pm on Christmas Eve, December 24th, and the festivities last until the Thirteenth Day (Twelfth Night), which falls on January the 6th. In the high north, Christmas is linked to ancient traditions related to the winter solstice. It is not known with any certainty when “Christmas”, or Yule, was celebrated in heathendom, but it is thought likely that the celebration took place on a full moon during the time of year when the day is shortest. Not much is known either about how the feast was celebrated at that time, except that Yule was “drunk” with feasts of food and ale, and that Icelandic Chieftains were in the habit of inviting scores of people to Yule drinking feasts.
Later, Nordic Yule was superseded by the celebration of the birth of Christ. This was due to the fact that by the time Christianity was introduced in Iceland, the celebration of Christmas had long ago become ingrained in Roman doctrine. It is worth mentioning that in the Mediterranean the same thing had happened a little earlier – that is, heathen celebrations being replaced by Christian ones. In this way, centuries old mid-winter celebrations were turned into celebrations of the Redeemer, where either his birth or baptism was the cause for celebration. In the 4th and 5th Centuries it had become customary in most of the Christian world to commemorate the birth of Christ on December 25th, and the baptism and the adoration of the Wise Men on January 6th, thus the idea of the thirteen days of Christmas.
Even though Christmas itself only lasts for thirteen days and starts at 6 pm sharp on Christmas Eve, it may be said that to many people the preparations for Christmas are as important as the festivities themselves. This is the way it has been for centuries, and the weeks before Christmas have traditionally been taken over by Christmas preparations. In Iceland the weeks leading up to Christmas have been called either Christmas Fast or Advent. Christmas Fast was used because in Catholicism people fasted in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and were therefore not supposed to eat any meat. The term Advent, however, comes straight from Latin where the word adventus means to arrive, but Advent is thought of as a time for both spiritual and worldly preparations for the arrival of Christmas. Advent, which starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, is therefore a time used to get preparations for Christmas done. As a matter of fact, people nowadays often start their Christmas preparations long before Advent arrives, but Advent is always the time when preparations are at their peak – and get finished!
In the Icelandic rural society of old much emphasis was placed on finishing the tasks that needed to be done around the home before Christmas, and the most important task was the preparation and knitting of woollen garments. Knitted items were taken to the shopkeeper in exchange for store merchandise, and if the merchandise was to be enjoyed at Christmas the woollens obviously had to be ready in time. It was considered of high importance that every member of the household be properly dressed at Christmas, and no one should be “devoured” by the Yule Cat. Those who worked hard were given a new garment by their employers and therefore it was important to keep at the knitting.
Today, Icelandic Christmas preparations are quite different from how they used to be, but one thing is certain: people are definitely not doing any less than they used to! Nowadays there are numerous things that need to be accomplished before the Church bells ring Christmas in. Christmas Cards must be written, Christmas presents have to be bought, the house has to be given a thorough Christmas cleaning, new Christmas clothes must be bought for every member of the family, and thirteen days before Christmas children put their shoe in the window in the hope of the Yule lads (the Icelandic version of Father Christmas/Santa Claus) leaving them a little something. Then the Christmas food has to be thought of, as well as the Christmas baking and the Christmas decorations. When the Festivities finally arrive and the preparations are finished, wonderful days full of Christmas parties and Christmas entertainment take over.
Nowadays many people consider sending Christmas greetings to friends and family near and far as an essential part of the Christmas preparations. Christmas Cards are the most common form of Christmas greetings, but with increased use of technology it is becoming more and more common for people to send electronic greetings, e-mails and text messages at Christmas. Since the year 1932, the Icelandic State Broadcasting Service (RÚV) has broadcast Christmas and New-Year's greetings, which were originally intended mainly for those who for some reason had to be away from home, be they sailors at sea, or people who for one reason or another were unable to be with their families at Christmas. As the years went by, the Christmas greetings broadcast by RÚV continued to increase, and this trend shows no sign of changing in our day – indeed, on St Thorlákur´s Day (December 23rd) RÚV Radio 1 broadcasts nothing but Christmas greetings and News. As such, it can be concluded that Christmas Greetings are, for a great many people, an essential part of the Christmas celebrations.
Despite a huge increase in Christmas greetings sent by modern technology, traditional Christmas Cards are as popular as ever. Each December the post offices overflow with Christmas Cards, and the numbers are so great that people are urged to send their cards early to be sure that they will be delivered in time. The oldest known Christmas greeting in Iceland is to be found in a letter dated 1667, written by the bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson, where he says: “With a wish for a merry Christmas and a prosperous new year, and every hour full of good prospects, in the name of our Lord, Amen.” It was, however, not until quite a bit later that Christmas Cards as we know them today came along. The world's first known Christmas card was published in England in the year 1843, three years after the invention of the postal stamp. It was not until around 1890 that the first Christmas Cards were marketed in Iceland, and their origins were mostly Danish or German – at that time Christmas cards had become increasingly popular both in Europe and North America. Around the turn of the 19th Century, Icelandic Christmas cards started appearing and the tradition of sending Christmas cards soon caught on in Iceland – a tradition which has grown steadily since and has long ago established itself as an unmissable part of the preparations for Christmas.
Today, Christmas and Christmas presents are inextricably linked, and in the minds of many people the presents are one of the most important features of the celebrations. In the month of December shops and shopping centres are filled with people buying one present after another, and the media is full of advertisements for the perfect Christmas gifts. The flood of Christmas presents seems to get larger and larger each year, and shop owners certainly don't have anything to complain about at this time of year. Given the importance of Christmas presents for today's celebrations, it is a bit strange to realise that the custom of giving Christmas presents is actually not very old in Iceland. It was not until the mid-19th Century that the general public started giving Christmas presents as we know them today. In this context it is interesting to note that the custom of giving summer presents is much older in Iceland, and references from the 16th Century record this tradition.
It should, however, be noted that even though ordinary people were not in the habit of giving Christmas presents until the 19th Century, it is known that Royalty and Chieftains of old, both in this country and abroad, exchanged gifts at Christmas. It was also common, from ancient times onwards, to present the poor with gifts of food around Christmas, and this is still done both here and abroad. It should also be pointed out that in the rural society of old most members of a household received a new garment and new sheepskin shoes from their employers at Christmas. These gifts were, however, not considered actual Christmas presents, but rather as a type of reward for a job well done, as the time leading up to Christmas was characterised by a great deal of hard work, as lots of work had to be finished before the Church bells rang Christmas in.
It may perhaps be said that the first indication of Christmas gifts in Iceland dates back to the early 19th Century tradition of giving children, and sometimes everyone in the home, a candle for Christmas. One of the tasks that had to be accomplished before Christmas was the moulding of candles from sheep drippings. These candles were rather expensive and it was a very festive moment when the children were given their own candle. The light of the candle was also much brighter than that from the fish-oil lamps that were used every day, and thus it is easy to imagine the festive atmosphere in the communal living/sleeping room (baðstofa) of the farmhouses at Christmas when everyone lit their candles. As the 19th Century progressed, Christmas presents became more and more common. Around that time specific advertisements started appearing in newspapers, but the oldest one on record is from the paper Þjóðólfur in the year 1866, where the New Testament is advertised as an opportune Christmas gift for children and young people. As the importation of all types of merchandise increased, Christmas presents became more and more common, and it may be said that the ball that started rolling in the latter part of the 19th Century is still going full force, as there seems to be no stopping the ever increasing Christmas present shopping.
Today, most people clean their house thoroughly before Christmas, although it depends on how thorough a clean people feel is necessary! Some people clean every cupboard in the house, dust and wash their furniture, and wash curtains and table cloths, while for others changing the bedding and washing the floors is enough. Whatever level of cleaning they prefer, most people want their homes to be nice and clean at Christmas. When the home has been cleaned from top to bottom, the Christmas bath is a necessity so that you too are clean and proper before putting on the brand new Christmas clothes. The Christmas cleaning is not a new custom in this country, and in the olden days it was considered equally important to clean the house, clothing and the body – just as today. It should be borne in mind that in those days people did not have access to all the cleaning materials and running water that we have now, and the cleaning was therefore quite different from what we do today. All clothing and bedding had to be hand-washed, and the custom was to do this a few days before Christmas. This posed certain problems, as many people did not own a change of bedding or clothing, and therefore had to wait in bed while the clothes and bedding were washed and dried. People waited and hoped for a good “dry” – a so-called “poor man's dry” – so that the clothes would be dry enough to wear again soon. After that the houses and furniture had to be cleaned. Then the farm floors were washed, as well as all the woodwork. The wooden floors were usually cleaned with sand, and the earthen floors swept. Finally, all food containers had to be washed, and the cutlery and other metal objects in the home were polished with ash. When this was all done it was time to clean the inhabitants themselves, and for that purpose water was heated on the fire, poured into a tub, and people either bathed in the tub or washed from head to toe with a washcloth. As far as this is concerned, it should be remembered that then, as now, it varied how thoroughly people cleaned their houses – and themselves!
As is mentioned in the sections on the Yule Cat and Christmas Presents, it was customary in traditional rural society that employers gave the employees in their home a new garment and sheepskin shoes for Christmas. This was done to reward the people for good work, as the tasks that had to be accomplished before Christmas were numerous, and therefore the weeks leading up to Christmas were characterized by a rigorous workload. The saying went that those who did not receive a new garment for Christmas would be “devoured by the Yule Cat” which was a fate to be avoided at all costs – although whether this meant that the Yule Cat would eat them or eat their food wasn't always clear. Thus everyone worked zealously at finishing all the woolwork and knitting of garments for the members of the household before the arrival of Christmas. Today the saying “to be devoured by the Yule cat” is still used for those who do not get a new garment for Christmas, and for many people it is important to wear only new clothes – and preferably to have a new haircut – on Christmas Eve. What has changed, of course, is that people no longer make all their clothes at home, and most people now head for the nearest fashion store to buy the new Christmas clothes and Christmas shoes.
Shoe in the Window
On the night before December 12th it is customary for Icelandic children to put one of their shoes in the window, as that night the first Yule Lad “Stekkjarstaur” – or Sheep-Cote Clod – comes to town. The shoe stays on the window sill until Christmas, and the children hope that the Yule Lads, who come into town from the mountains one by one on the nights leading up to Christmas, will leave a little something for them in the shoe. The children must earn these small gifts by being well behaved, or else they run the risk of finding a potato in their shoe. Even though this custom is well entrenched now, this has not always been the case, and in its early days there was some confusion as to how many nights before Christmas the shoe should be in the window, as well as about how large or small the gifts should be.
The reason for this confusion was that when this custom was first brought to Iceland, it was only common within small groups of people and, did not spread much outside of those groups. Those who first got to know this custom were Icelandic seamen who sailed in the North Sea, but in Holland and other regions by the North Sea it was customary for children to put their shoe in the window on the eve of December 6th, which is the day of the Mass of St. Nicholas, the protector of Children and Seafarers in Catholicism. The children hoped St. Nicholas would leave them a little gift in their shoe. The Icelandic sailors learnt about this custom, and brought it home with them and introduced it to their own children. The first known instances of Icelandic children putting their shoe in the window date back to the 1930s. However, as the custom spread slowly in the beginning it wasn't until around the middle of the Century that it became common for all Icelandic children to put their shoe in the window.
Here in Iceland it was not St Nicholas who put gifts in the shoe, but rather the Yule Lads. For quite a while it differed between homes when the children started putting their shoe in the window, and in some houses children would do this as early as December 1st. It also differed from home to home how large the gifts were, and children from richer families got larger presents each time, and sometimes the Yule Lads seemed to play favourites to an unacceptable degree. At the end of the seventies, the situation had gotten so out of hand that assistance was sought from the Folk Custom Division of the National Museum on how to handle these discrepancies and extravagances. The remedy was a campaign of awareness raising, conducted through the media and in kindergartens, where parents were requested not to be so extravagant in this respect, as well as reminding them that as there are only thirteen Yule Lads, no shoes should be put in windows until thirteen days before Christmas, beginning on the night before the 12th of December.
Christmas Parties and Christmas Entertainment
In Iceland Christmas starts at 6 pm on Christmas Eve, and at that time all preparations must be finished. Many people start the festivities by attending Mass, but others make do with starting their Christmas dinner when the Church bells have rung Christmas in. It is customary for Icelandic families to spend the Night of Christmas Eve together, eat a delicious dinner and open presents. The Christmas Festivities are, in the minds of many people, a family celebration, and have always been thought of as a respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday work. Christmas provides an excellent opportunity to host parties where families and friends come together to eat good food and spend time together. At Christmas parties people often play cards or games, and it has long been one of the characteristics of Christmas that children and their needs are focused on, and that adults take time to play with them. There are sources which record games being played at Christmas in the 16th Century, and it may be inferred that Christmas was the time when people were most likely to indulge in play and games. In this context we mean both card- and board-games, which still are immensely popular among all age groups around Christmas. There are also sources which suggest games such as hide and seek, blind man's bluff, and others in that vein were played in Iceland at Christmas. It does, however, differ from family to family whether games are played at Christmas parties, and how many Christmas parties people attend. Some people prefer to spend Christmas in peace and quiet, with a book in their hands or watching a good film on television, using the Christmas vacation to charge their batteries and relax before the New Year, and with it the toil of everyday life, arrives.
In addition to all the family Christmas parties a great number of organized entertainment also takes place at Christmas time – particularly in the days leading up to Christmas, and again during the days between Christmas and the New Year. Christmas entertainment is organized in schools and kindergartens, in workplaces, at social organisations, and so on. These events are great for those who have not had their fill of fun at home. It has become a tradition in most primary schools to celebrate “Little Christmas” in the last week of school before the vacation. In preparation the children make ornaments, decorate their schoolroom, and are allowed to bring a candle and some sweets to school. In the wake of this the schools usually have a Christmas dance where the children dance around the Christmas tree. Austurbæjarskóli is considered to have pioneered these dances, and the first winter the school was open – in the year 1930 – a Christmas dance like this was held. Slowly but surely other schools followed suit, and this custom is now common around the country. It is however, not only schools and kindergartens that hold Christmas dances such as these: they are also commonly held at workplaces, organisations and others places. The first Christmas dance to be held in Iceland took place on December 28th 1876, and was organised by the Thorvaldsen Society. This lead to various shops and organisations also offering Christmas dances in the days between Christmas and the New Year, and there have been more and more on offer as the years have gone by. Nowadays, most children attend several Christmas dances during the holidays, and many have to pick and choose those they want (and are able) to attend out of the great number on offer to them.