Christmas Traditions

Christmas Trees

Christmas trees are an important part of Christmas in our day and generally they are given a central place in people´s living rooms. A great part of the Christmas celebrations take place around the Christmas tree. The Christmas gifts are usually kept under the tree and it is around the tree that families gather to open their presents. 

At Christmas dances the Christmas tree is placed in the middle of the room and the children and others present dance around it. During Advent, Christmas trees are first put up in public places: shops and work places. These trees are often outdoors and are generally decorated with colourful lights and sometimes other ornaments. Every year since 1952 a large and beautiful tree has been put up on Austurvöllur square in Reykjavík. This tree is a gift to the people of Reykjavík from the people of the Norwegian capital Oslo. It is a festive moment when the lights on the tree at Austurvöllur square are lit in early December and an occasion for the people of Reykjavík to gather and enjoy the lights and the Christmas spirit. Even though decorated Christmas trees are seen in public already at the outset of Advent it is usually not until a few days before Christmas that people decorate the tree at home. It is most common for people to decorate their tree on St Thorlákur´s Day, the day before Christmas Eve, when the Christmas preparations are at their peak. In that way the decorating of the tree marks the beginning of the festive spirit associated with Christmas as it mostly is the final touch to the preparations in the home to turn on the Christmas tree lights. When the lights have been turned on Christmas can come!

As the Christmas trees play such an important role in modern day Christmas celebrations it may seem odd that they, as is the case with a lot of other Christmas ornaments, are a relatively recent tradition in this country and elsewhere. It is know, however, that the ancient Romans decorated their homes with evergreen branches during the height of winter but the first records of Christmas trees as such are from Germany in the latter part of the 16th Century. It is considered most likely that this custom came in the wake of the Reformation as it was no longer considered proper to use Catholic Christmas traditions such as putting up a Bethlehem manger or a Christmas manger. The Christmas tree was thus originally a Protestant tradition but at the outset only the well off put up Christmas trees - which often had real candles on the branches. It was not until the 19th Century that Christmas trees became common among the general public in Europe and it is around that time that they are first seen in the Nordic Countries. Around the middle of the 19th Century the first Christmas trees are seen in Iceland and then mostly among Danish shopkeepers and Icelandic officials who had been familarised with them in Copenhagen. At first, the Icelandic Christmas trees were made at home as no evergreens grew wild in Iceland. These home made trees were often made from a pole and sticks and were sometimes painted green or red. Candles were often put on the branches and they were decorated in some way, for example with heather if no other ornaments were available. It wasn´t until the middle of the 20th Century that live evergreens became commonplace in this country. At first they were imported and it was not for everyone to purchase such a tree and therefore the home made trees were still used by many people well into the 20th Century. Around 1970 Icelandic evergreens came on the market and now most people choose to have a live Christmas tree decorated with lights and ornaments in their home and for many the fragrance the trees emit is an important part of the Christmas spirit. Others make do with artificial trees -  which by the way look more and more real and can be quite beautiful -and by doing that avoid the hassle of sweeping or vacuming the pine needles that inevitable fall off the live trees.

Christmas tree

Christmas Trees - 29.11.2016

Christmas trees are an important part of Christmas in our day and generally they are given a central place in people´s living rooms. A great part of the Christmas celebrations take place around the Christmas tree. The Christmas gifts are usually kept under the tree and it is around the tree that families gather to open their presents. 

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Advent Lights - 29.11.2016

On the first Advent Sunday, which falls on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, Icelanders traditionally put up so called Advent wreaths. The Advent wreaths traditionally are circular and are decorated with four candles which are lit, one by one, the last four Sundays before Christmas. The Advent wreaths are often ornately decorated with evergreen branches or the like. 

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Christmas Lights

Christmas Lights - 29.11.2016

Christmas lights were for the longest time the only decorations people could afford for Christmas. At that time people used candles, but most people could not afford to use candles except at festive moments and therefore used them at Christmas. Still today it is the masses of light that are a characteristic of Christmas but nowadays it is not only candlelight but also electric light in all shapes and sizes. Before the coming of electricity Icelanders had to endure a darkness of a scale the modern man finds difficult to conceive of.  

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Christmas Decorations - 29.11.2016

In the advent of Christmas all types of Christmas ornaments and lights are seen everywhere. People decorate their homes and put colourful garlands of lights in their windows. Amply decorated shop windows fill up with Christmas merchandise and there are lights everywhere. 

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St Thorlákur´s Day Skate - 29.11.2016

Even though Catholicism was abolished in Iceland in the year 1550 the Mass of the Icelandic saint Thorlákur is still celebrated on his Mass day of December 23rd each year. Today, it is mainly in connection with the preparation of Christmas that people remember the Mass of St Thorlákur (or St Thorlákur´s Day) and for many it is a tradition to decorate the Christmas tree on that day or do the last of their Christmas shopping. 

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Leaf bread

Leaf Bread - 29.11.2016

In the minds of many Icelanders, leaf bread is one of the specialities of the Icelandic Christmas. The oldest available source regarding leaf bread in Iceland stems from the earlier part of the 18th Century where the leaf bread is described as the sweetmeat of the Icelanders. It is believed that originally the leaf bread was mostly on the table of those better off and that it did not enter the table of the general public until the 19th Century.

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Christmas food

Christmas Food - 29.11.2016

The Cristmas Season has traditionally been centred around food, a celebration where people eat a lot of good food and meat has been a mainstay of people´s diets during this season here in Iceland. During the last years the development has been that it is not just during Christmas itself that people enjoy good food but rather the eating fest stretches to include the period of the Advent. 

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Shoe in window

Shoe in the Window - 29.11.2016

On the night preceding December 12th it is customary for Icelandic children to put their shoe in the window as that night the first Yule „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 one by one come into town from the mountains those nights leading up to Christmas, will leave a little something for them in the shoe. 

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Woman with her children

Christmas Clothes - 29.11.2016

As is mentioned in the chapters on the Yule Cat and on Christmas Presents it was customary in the old 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. 

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Christmas presents

Christmas Presents - 29.11.2016

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 the other and the media are 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 need not complain about anything during this time of year. 

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Christmas Cards

Christmas Cards - 29.11.2016

Nowadays many people consider sending Christmas greetings to friends and family near and far as an essential part of the Christmas preparations. 

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