Christmas Traditions

Christmas Presents

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. 

Given the importance of Christmas presents for today´s celebrations it is a bit strange to realize that the custom of giving Christmas presents is in fact 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. It is interesting in this context, that the custom of giving summer presents is much older in Iceland and references from the 16th Century point to this.

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, exhanged 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 prize for a job well done, as the time leading up to Christmas was characterized by a great deal of hard work as all pending jobs had to be finished before the Church bells rung in Christmas.

It may perhaps be said that the first indicator of Christmas gifts in Iceland dates back to the the early 19th Century traditon 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. Those 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 fishoil lamps that were used everyday and thus it is easy to imagine the festive atmosphere in the communal living/sleeping room (baðstofa) of the farmhouses at Christmas when everyone had lit their candle. As the 19th Century progressed Christmas presents became more and more common. Around that time specific advertisements started appearing in the papers, but the oldest one on record is from 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 cessation in the shopping for Christmas presents.