Christmas in Iceland - Celebrating light in the darkness

The Christmas celebrations or Yuletide are the biggest holidays in Iceland. Many traditions may be familiar, but some perhaps a bit peculiar, like that children put shoes in their bedroom window for 13 days in the hope of getting presents from mischievous yule-lads. So how do Icelanders celebrate the Yuletide and how can travellers participate in the festivities?

Icelandic holiday traditions - a mixed bag of cultures

Yule traditions in Iceland are probably as old as the country's settlement in medieval times and are a mixed bag of religion and folklore. The month-long festivities shorten the long dark winter where the sun only crawls above the horizon for four hours during the winter solstice. For a whole month, Christmas-related festivities involving food and drinks, cultural and religious events, parties and family dinners, decorations and shopping, keep many people busy. Yet, at the same time, quiet evenings with candlelight, books, hot chocolate, and cookies are equally appreciated.

"Lovely" folk stories for children - The 13 Yule-lads, their scary troll mother Grýla, and the terrifying Yule-cat

Ten of the 13 Yule Lads waving in a snow covered lava field

The Icelandic Yule-lads are harmless pranksters that even bring gifts to children.

Many mysterious figures appear during the Yule season that belongs to the same Yule-troll family. The 13 Yule Lads are sometimes called the Icelandic Santas, but they are certainly no saints, although mostly harmless. They are pranksters who each have a particular craving that usually reflects in their names; for example, Spoon Licker, Door Slammer, Skyr Gobbler, and Sausage Stealer. Despite their naughty behavior, they can be friendly to well-behaved children and even bring them gifts.  

Then there are two in the family, Grýla and the Yule Cat, that entirely lack any Christmas spirit. Grýla is the Yule-lads troll mother and she collects naughty children in her sack, brings them to her cave, and boils them. Their big black cat hunts on Christmas eve and eats poor people that didn’t get a new piece of clothing before Christmas.

Here you find guidelines on how to avoid getting tricked or eaten by the Icelandic yule-trolls - and the right procedures for getting a gift from the yule lads.

Shopping and gifts - the annual Yule book flood

Downtown Reykjavik decorated with Christmas lights

Downtown Reykjavík is decorated with Christmas lights.

Giving books for Christmas has been a tradition in Iceland for decades and lies in our literary roots from medieval times when the Icelandic Sagas were written. Therefore, many books are published before Christmas when book sales are peaking, and we get the annual Christmas book flood.

Other popular gifts are clothes, music and event-related gifts and of course phones and other gadgets and toys for the children. The gifts are usually opened after dinner on Christmas eve on the 24th of December when most Icelanders celebrate Christmas.

Whether people like shopping in malls or strolling the downtown shopping streets, there are several options. The most prominent malls are the Kringlan and Smáralind shopping malls in the Capital area and Glerártorg in Akureyri in North Iceland. For those seeking the downtown atmosphere, Laugavegur, Skólavörðurstígur, and the surroundings in Reykjavík are great options as well as the Christmas village in Hafnarfjörður. Most larger towns around the island will also have shops in the downtown area with longer opening hours, Christmas decorations, and pop-up music events, such as the Christmas center in Selfoss. You may even run into some cheeky Yule lads or the Santa-Claus himself somewhere on his annual stopover in Iceland.

A snow path leading up to a decorated house
Two children standing in front of an icy lake
A light sculpture of the giant christmas cat

Food and dining - Are restaurants and grocery stores open around Christmas?

To no surprise, many Icelandic Yule traditions include food. Smoked lamb and fermented fish are among the most traditional choices but you can read more about typical Icelandic Christmas food here.

Restaurants in Reykjavík are generally open during the winter season, but opening hours may vary around Christmas. Therefore, booking in advance is advised, especially on the 24th, 25th, 26th, and 31st of December and the 1st and 2nd of January. During these days, some restaurants may be closed or have limited hours. 

Here you can check out which restaurants are open in Reykjavík in 2022.

Grocery stores are generally open until noon on the 24th of December, stay closed on the 25th, and reopen on the 26th or 27th. The same applies for New Year’s; they close at noon on the 31st, stay closed on the 1st of January, and reopen on the 2nd or 3rd.

13 Things to do in Iceland around Christmas and New Year's Eve

Fireworks in front of the tall Hallgrimskirkja church tower

1. Put your shoe in the window from the 11.-24th of December in the hope to get a small present from the Yule-lads (only applies for children).

2. Enjoy some of the many Christmas concerts offered in the country's churches, at Harpa music hall, or other venues. 

3. Christmas shopping in the Christmas villages in Hafnarfjörður or Selfoss, downtown Reykjavík on Laugavegur, Skólavörðustígur, and surroundings or in the Kringlan & Smáralind shopping malls.

4. Visit the Yule-lads in Dimmuborgir and the Christmas house in North Iceland.

5. Chase the Northern lights. Now is the perfect timing with only 5 hours of daylight.

6. Go barhopping to taste the local Christmas craft beers on draft. 

7. Relax in some of the many geothermal pools in Iceland.

8. Go to a Yule buffet, taste the typical Icelandic Christmas food, and try the traditional fermented skate on the 23rd.

9. Go to Hallgrímskirkja church, The Pearl, or any other hill in the capital area around midnight on New Year's eve to witness the renowned Reykjavík firework show.

10. Go on an Ice-cave tour and attempt to see the Icelandic reindeer in East Iceland.

11. Go Ice-skating downtown Reykjavík.

12. Go experience Christmas in the snow-heaviest and darkest regions of Iceland The Westfjords and North Iceland.

13. Have a stroll in town to look at lights and decorations and search for animations of the 13 yule-lads around town.

Get inspired

You might also be interested in:

Christmas in Iceland