Glethileg Jol! History & Holiday Traditions of Iceland - Part II

Illustration of Iceland Christmas folklore with Gryla, her husband, the Yule Cat, and all 13 Yule Lads frolicking on a snowscape background with trees, mountains, and the northern lights in the sky. Text reads: "Glethileg Jol! History & Holiday Traditions of Iceland Part 2".

Welcome back! What would you say if I told you to beware of a giant child-eating witch, her equally carnivorous cat, and her 13 mischievous troll children? How about if I told you that tonight’s main course of rotten fermented skate had been buried in the sand for six months before being hung to dry? You would say Gleðileg Jól, because it’s obviously Christmastime in Iceland!

In Part I, we looked at the history of Iceland and her people, forged by hardships as rugged as the dynamic land itself. This adversity - pestilence, natural disasters, starvation, colonization - shaped Icelanders into a hearty lot, determined to survive in spite of the odds. However, survival of the nation was dependent on children reaching the age of majority, and that’s a tall order when kids are prone to doing the very thing you tell them to not. So, Icelanders wove dire warnings into their folklore, hoping that fear might achieve what nature seemed destined to undermine - survival. These folktales relate directly to Icelandic history and elements. The winters are cold and fierce storms whip up in no time. Children who misbehaved and went outside could get caught in these storms and not return home. Modern times have softened the image of their main characters, but much like fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, original folklore is brutal and unforgiving.

Jól (Christmastime) begins four weeks before Christmas Eve (Aðfangadagur), and ends thirteen days later, on what is elsewhere known as the Feast of the Epiphany. Jól is one of the most important celebrations in Iceland, with families preparing enormous feasts. Throughout much of the nation’s history, food was scarce and impossible to replenish during the harsh winter months. Wasted food could be the difference between death and survival, and naughty children who disobey their parents are at risk of landing in the sack and subsequent stewpot of Grýla, an evil giantess with an insatiable appetite for naughty children. Grýla lives in the mountains of north Iceland with her troll husband Leppalúði.

Every good witch has a familiar and Grýla is no exception. She’s assisted by Jólakötturinn, The Yule Cat, who eats any child that does not receive new clothes. Being so close to the Arctic Circle, Iceland has precious few hours of daylight in the winter. As with many cultures, it was important to finish much of the work before the dark cold winter set in. Needing new clothes to avoid the clutches of Jólakötturinn was a tale likely created to ensure tasks such as weaving and sewing were completed before the long dark nights set in.

Grýla also happens to be the mother of Jólasveinarnir, or The Yule Lads (sometimes referred to as The Christmas Trolls). These troublesome half-giant trolls are rather aggressive in nature and not to be tangled with. They embark on 13 days of mischief, beginning December 12, and continuing through December 24. A common theme with all Jólasveinarnir is food and shelter - two things most precious to the Icelandic ancestors.

Replica of a traditional Icelandic home inside of a museum. There is a wood door, candle, and pots, pans, and smoked meat hanging on the wood paneled walls.
Replica of a traditional Icelandic home

Day 1 sees Stekkjastaur (“Sheep-Cote Clod”) harassing the household sheep. Sheep are ubiquitous in Iceland (they outnumber people >2:1) and their wool, milk, and meat are vital to a family’s survival. No part of the animal is wasted, and I mean NO PART. Seriously. I could do an entire post on Þorramatur alone, but you may never speak to me again. Day 2 brings Giljagaur (“The Gully Gawk”), who hides in gullies and steals any milk he can find. Milk is important in making skyr, a vital source of nutrition and protein. Generally, cows were only owned by wealthier families, but those farms were often tended by poorer Icelanders. Day 3 ushers in Stúfur (“Stubby”), who steals any pans left out to eat whatever crust remains. Pans are imported and expensive, so if one goes missing, it will be extremely difficult to replace.

Days 4 and 5 bring Thvoruskeikir (“Spoon-Licker”) and Potaskefill (“Pot-Scraper”), respectively. Thvoruskeikir breaks into homes and licks every spoon in hopes of finding some food left. Potaskefill sneaks into homes and scours pots for leftovers, eating whatever morsels he finds. These were likely cautionary tales for children to eat everything on their plate and clean their cutlery. The goal was to encourage children not to waste food, especially during the lean winter months. On Day 6, Askasleikir (“Bowl-Licker”) arrives to sneak into homes and lick - you guessed it - BOWLS! He goes for a specific lidded Icelandic bowl called an askur. He’s a bit creepier than his other food-snatching brothers, though. Askasleikir lays under the child’s bed until they finish their soup or pudding, then licks whatever food remains in the askur. Again, the moral of the story is not to waste food.

On Day 7, Hurðaskellir (“Door-Slammer”) bangs doors in the middle of the night to waken inhabitants. This was likely to ensure children kept the doors of their homes shut. Iceland is incredibly windy and as mentioned earlier, severe winter storms sprout up from seemingly nowhere. I was actually caught in one while horseback riding with a guide in the lava fields! Thankfully, the horses know the way back to a warm barn and waiting food. An open door could be dangerous. Those same winds likely kept doors rattling throughout the night while also keeping terrified children trembling in their beds. Come Day 8, Skyrgámur (“Skyr-Gobbler”) will gobble up any skyr left unattended. You’ve likely seen skyr in the dairy section of your local supermarket, as it has become increasingly popular in the last decade. Skyr is a dense cultured dairy product rich in protein that has been a staple of the Icelandic diet for over 1,000 years. It is a fresh sour milk cheese similar to Greek yogurt, but slightly sweeter. Easy to see why Skyrgámur is so fond of it!

Day 9 finds Bjúgnakrækir (“Sausage-Snatcher”) stealing the bjúgu (sausage) left hanging to smoke from the rafters. Smoking meats is a popular method of preparation and preservation in Iceland, from fish to lamb. Bjúgnakrækir hangs out in the rafters until the bjúgu is left unattended, then grabs his favorite morsel. Day 10 brings Gluggagægir (“Window-Peeper”), who might find himself featured on an episode of To Catch a Predator. As his name implies, this creepy fellow likes to peep into windows. Given how little daylight existed in the Icelandic winters, this was likely another way to keep bored children from wandering off outdoors into the snow.

Wooden cutting board and ornament with laufabrauð design and two laufabrauðsjárn on a red and green plaid cloth background.
Wooden cutting board and ornament with laufabrauð design and two laufabrauðsjárn

On Day 11, beware Gáttaþefur (“Doorway-Sniffer”), who is always sniffing around to find the laufabrauð, and you know what? I can’t blame him because those beautiful delicate disks of fried bread are delicious! Only made during Christmastime, laufabrauð - “leaf bread” - is one of the most sacred holiday traditions. The entire family participates in the process. Dough is rolled thin and cut into circles, then decorated using special wheels called laufabrauðsjárn (“leaf bread iron”), which are rather pricey. These wheels mark patterns in the dough, which are then painstakingly cut and folded into intricate leaf-like geometric patterns before being fried in hot oil or fat. The recipes and patterns are passed down from generation to generation, making this one of the most family-centric traditions of all the Iceland Christmas festivities.

I purchased laufabrauðsjárn while in Iceland and attempted a batch of laufabrauð upon my return home. It is quite the ordeal and I see why the whole family gets involved. I had more fails than wins and clearly, this is something I will need to practice, but this video takes you through the fascinating process. The family in this video (look for the jólasveinarnir figurines!) uses store-bought laufabrauð dough, but decorates them using traditional laufabrauðsjárn, whereas the man in this video makes his own dough (recipe included), but uses a simple paring knife to make cuts.

On Day 12, Ketkrókur (“Meat Hook”) sneaks into the kitchen and uses his long hook to steal any meat left unattended. Unlike Bjúgnakrækir who longs only for smoked sausage, Ketkrókur is happy to snatch any and all meat products left about. However, since he makes his first visit on December 23, he is most likely to find kæst skata, or fermented skate fish, which is the traditional feast served on Þorláksmessa, or Mass of Saint Thorlak’s - Iceland’s patron saint! Kæst skata is an… acquired taste. Icelanders have adapted to their conditions by ensuring nothing goes to waste, and sometimes that means burying dead things in sand and letting them ferment for 6 months. Yum.

The same process produces the equally delightful hákarl - fermented Greenland shark. There’s actually a scientific reasoning behind it, though! Skates and sharks do not have traditional urinary tracts, therefore they excrete concentrated urea through their skin. This makes their flesh highly toxic for human consumption, so to rid the meat of these poisons, both skate and shark are placed in shallow holes in the sand, then covered with stones, sand, and gravel while toxins leach out into the surrounding ground. The resulting meat has a strong scent of ammonia, yet is edible. I suppose if you’re hungry enough… *shrug* Kæst skata is usually served with boiled potatoes, lamb fat, turnips, and buttered slices of rúgbrauð - traditional Icelandic rye bread. Perhaps a shot of Brennivín will kill enough taste buds to make the meal palatable. Brennivín (literal translation: “burning wine”) is a type of ákavíti, or aquavit spirit, sometimes referred to as “black death”. This clear unsweetened schnapps is flavored with caraway and typically bottled around 40% ABV (80 proof). I loved Brennivín, but it’s not for everyone!

Icelandic butter was traditionally hand-churned and made from cream skimmed from the milk of grass-fed cows and ewes, as sheep far outnumber cows in Iceland. Growth hormones and steroids are completely banned in Iceland’s livestock, and antibiotics are strongly regulated. Milk deliveries are tested for traces of medicinal products upon arrival at dairies before it’s offloaded from the trucks. Deliveries that test positive are destroyed, ensuring only the most natural ingredients go into the final product. You can probably find Smjör brand imported Icelandic butter in your supermarket, so if you’re looking for a healthier butter that is richly flavored and easy to spread, consider giving it a try!

A grey storefront in Reykjavík, Iceland, with a red sign and white lettering, and a stone sidewalk. The store name translates to "Little Christmas Shop". You can see a variety of ornaments and decorations behind the large glass windows.
The "Little Christmas Shop" in Reykjavík, Iceland

On Day 13 - December 24 - Kertasnikir (“Candle-Stealer”) is the final Yule Lad to make his way down the mountain for mischief, and he’s possibly the biggest jerk. Kertasnikir eats the valuable tallow candles providing precious light during long winter days. Icelanders are also passionate about reading and many books are given as Christmas gifts. In fact, there is a specific word for this custom: Jólabókaflóð, or “Christmas Book Flood”. Without candles, there is no reading. Rude!

That brings us to the jólamaturinn (Christmas dinner) feast. On Aðfangadagur - Christmas Eve - most families dine on the traditional rjúpa, or roast ptarmigan, a wild fowl with a gamey flavor that is common in Iceland. Rock ptarmigans are members of the grouse subfamily and actually undergo a plumage change between seasons. They have dark feathers during the summer that swap out for white ones in the winter, making excellent camouflage. Ptarmigan were in danger of over-hunting since families would need to serve several of these small birds during the jólamaturinn. To prevent their numbers from being depleted, a temporary ban on ptarmigan hunting was instituted in the early 2000s, but they are now fair “game” (haha, get it??? Ugh… I’ve been typing too long).

Christmas ptarmigan is served with a sauce of bilberry and thyme - jólarjúpa með berjasósu. Bilberries are small dark tart berries that are closely related to blueberries. They grow wild along with juniper and thyme, and all three are mainstays in Icelandic cuisine. Ptarmigan were considered a delicacy, but wealthier families would dine on roast goose, although that is not so much the case today. Some families prefer hamborgarhyggur, which is a smoked ham often served with a honey glaze and pineapple slices. This particular dish came from Denmark during the pre-refrigerator days when people relied on smoking meats to preserve them. Hamborgarhyggur is not as traditionally Icelandic as ptarmigan and goose, but is still popular.

A large full moon hangs over Reykjavík, Iceland at dusk.  There are snow covered buildings and a church with a tall steeple along the snow-covered frozen pond in the center of town. The sky is a medium blue and mountains are visible in the background.
Full moon over snow covered Reykjavík, Iceland at dusk

While these traditions and foods all date back hundreds of years, there is one modern addition to the jólamaturinn that I must include, despite my feelings to the contrary. That tradition is jólaöl, and it has become the quintessential Icelandic holiday beverage. Jólaöl (Christmas Ale) is a mix of this Icelandic orange soda called Appelsin (oranges do not grow in Iceland, for the record) and malt drink, which is kind of like a weak beer. As with hákarl and kæst skata, I did not understand the appeal, but you know what? I also don’t understand avocado toast, yet it’s super popular, so to each their own. I’ll just stick to my double gin and tonics, thank you very much.

Sadly, that will wrap up this extended Part II of "History & Holiday Traditions of Iceland”. Thank you so much for reading! I could go on and on about this fantastic frozen country, so expect future posts on the matter. Do you have any cultural Christmas traditions? Please share them in the comments and until next time, bless bless og Gleðileg Jól!

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