Hoppa yfir valmynd

Education and Culture

One of the Embassy´s goals is to promote Icelandic culture in the US and strengthen the educational ties between the two countries. The Embassy occasionally hosts cultural events in the Washington D.C. and can act as a facilitator in the cultural exchange between artists.

The Embassy provides information on educational and research opportunities for Americans in Iceland. Currently, around 400 Icelanders are studying in the US, along with a considerable number of researchers.

Iceland offers a wide range of educational opportunities for foreign citizens. Many universities now offer courses in English. Further Information can be found below.

Studies for Foreigners in Iceland

The Icelandic language is taught at several universities in the US, frequently as a part of a broader Nordic and Icelandic studies. Below you can find information on where Icelandic and Icelandic studies are taught around the world.

Icelandic Studies Abroad

Other options for learning Icelandic in the US:

Icelandic Online

Provided by the Univeristy of Iceland.

Icelandic Tape Lessons

Contact the Icelandic Canadian Club of B.C.

3776 Arbor Street, Burnaby, BC V5J 1T4


Icelandic Conversations:

5 cassetts (5hr. and 52-p text (photocopy) $ 115,00


96 broad St. Ste. LA40B

Guilford, CT 06437-2635

phone: (203) 453-9794

fax:      (203) 453-9774

Credit Card to order call: 1-800-243-1234


The Icelandic Correspondence College

Noatun 17, P.O. Box 5144

125 Reykjavik, ICELAND

phone: 011-354-562-9750


The Sigurður Nordal Institute

 P.O. Box 1220,

121 Reykjavík, Iceland

Telephone: 354-5626050. Fax:  354-5626263

One of the Embassy's tasks is to promote cultural exchange between Iceland and the US. The Embassy works closely with various cultural institutions in Iceland in promoting cultural events in the US, along with the Consulate General of Iceland in New York.

See Event Calendar to the right for cultural events.

This part of the website contains material on Iceland, especially prepared for children and school projects.

Information sheet for school projects:

Brief history of Iceland

The first people known to have habitated Iceland were Irish monks or hermits who came in the eight century, but left with the arrival of the pagan Norsemen, who systematically settled Iceland in the period 870 - 930 A.D. Iceland was thus the last European country to be settled.

The main source of information about the settlement period in Iceland is the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), written in the 12th century, which gives a detailed account of the first settlers. According to this book Ingólfur Arnarson was the first settler. He was a chieftain from Norway, arriving in Iceland with his family and dependents in 874. He built his farm in Reykjavík, the site of the present capital. During the next 60 years or so viking settlers from Scandinavia, bringing some Celtic people with them, spread their homesteads over the habitable areas. In the year 930, at the end of the Settlement period, a constitutional law code was accepted and the Alþingi established. The judicial power of the Alþingi was distributed between 4 local courts and a kind of a Supreme Court held annually at the national assembly at Þingvellir.

In the year 1000 Christianity was peacefully adopted by the Icelanders at the Alþingi, which met for two weeks every summer, attracting a large proportion of the population. The first bishopric was established at Skálholt in South Iceland in 1056, and a second at Hólar in the north in 1106. Both became the country’s main centers of learning.

In the late tenth century Greenland was discovered and colonized by the Icelanders under the leadership of Erik the Red, and around the year 1000 the Icelanders were the first Europeans to set foot on the American continent, 500 years before Columbus, although their attempts to settle in the New World failed.

In 1262-1264 internal feuds, amounting to a civil war, led to submission to the king of Norway and a new monarchial code in 1271. When Norway came under the control of the Danish crown and the Kalmar Union was formed in 1397, Iceland fell under the sovereignty of the King of Denmark.

After the "Golden Age" of independent Iceland had ended, things went from bad to worse. The Danish kings brought about the Reformation of the Church in 1551, which resulted in Danish control over the Church, and confiscation of its great wealth. They replaced the Hansa and English trade with an oppressive Danish trade monopoly, and established absolute monarchy in 1662, thus transferring all governing power to Copenhagen. While this arrangement was very profitable for the Danish Crown, these changes were disastrous for the Icelandic economy. Further problems arose in the food supply due to cooling of the climate during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The eighteenth century marked the most tragic age in Iceland’s history. In 1703, when the first complete census was taken, the population was approximately 50,000, of whom about 20% were beggars and dependents. From 1707 to 1709 the population sank to about 35,000 because of a devastating smallpox epidemic. Twice more the population declined below 40,000, both during the years 1752-57 and 1783-85, owing to a series of famines and natural disasters.

At the end of the 18th century the Alþingi had been dissolved and the old diocese replaced by one bishop residing in Reykjavík. As a consequence of the plight of the populace the trade monopoly was modified in 1783 and all subjects of the Danish king given the right to trade in Iceland.

In 1843 the Alþingi was reinstituted as a consultative assembly. In 1854 foreign trade was given entirely free. In 1874, when Iceland celebrated the millennium of the first settlement, it received a constitution from the Danish king and control of its own finances.

In 1904 Iceland got home rule and finally in 1918 sovereignty, but was united with Denmark under the Danish crown. In 1940 Iceland was occupied by British forces, which were replaced in 1941 by American troops by special agreement between the Icelandic and American governments. Finally, on 17 June 1944, the Republic of Iceland was formally proclaimed at Þingvellir.


Iceland has a written constitution. A president is elected by direct popular vote for a term of four years, with no term limit. The President personifies the integrity of the nation but is to remain apolitical, except in cases when the political parties have difficulties in forming a government, or fail to solve a government crisis. The Alþingi is a legislative body of 63 members elected for a term of four years by a popular vote. Anyone who is eligible to vote can run for a Parliamentary seat, with the exception of the President and the judges of the Supreme Court. After new elections the President calls in the leaders of the political parties for discussions and then gives the floor to one or more in succession to form a cabinet. A cabinet of ministers stays in power until the next general elections. The ministers are eo ipso members of Alþingi. If such is not the case, they take a seat on the ministerial bench with the full rights of a member except the right to vote.


Iceland was settled by a mixed stock of Norsemen from Scandinavia and Celts from the British Isles. The ruling class was Nordic, so that both the language and culture of Iceland were purely Scandinavian from the outset, but there are traces of Celtic influence in some of the Eddaic poems, in personal and place names and in the appearance of present-day Icelanders who have a higher percentage of the dark-haired type than the other Nordic nations.

The early blending of Nordic and Celtic blood may partly account for the fact that the Icelanders, alone of all the Nordic people, produced great literature in the Middle Ages. Immigration of foreign elements has been minimal since the first settlement, and there are no Inuits (Eskimos) in Iceland, contrary to common belief.

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe with an average of 2 inhabitants per square km. Almost four-fifths of the country are uninhabited and mostly uninhabitable, the settlements being limited to a narrow coastal belt, valleys and the lowland plains in the south and southwest.

Around the year 1100 the population, then entirely rural, is estimated to have been about 70 - 80,000. Three times in the eighteenth century it sank below 40,000 but by the year 1900 it had reached 78,000. In 1925 it had passed the 100,000 mark, in 1967 it reached 200,000 and is now over 319.000 The average life expectancy for men is 79 years and for women 83 years - one of the world’s highest averages.

In 1880 there were only three towns in Iceland, where 5% of the population lived. By 1920 about 43% of the population lived in towns and villages with more than 200 inhabitants. By 1984 there were 23 towns and 42 villages where 89,2% of the population lived, while only 10,8% lived in rural districts. In the future it is estimated that most of the Icelanders will live in the greater Reykjavík area.


Icelandic is the national language and is believed to have changed very little from the original tongue spoken by the Norse settlers, but English and Danish are widely spoken and understood. Icelandic has two letters of its own, Þ/þ and Ð/ð. Þ is pronounced as th in "thing" and Ð is pronounced as the th in "them".

Most Icelanders still follow the ancient tradition of deriving their last name from the first name of their father. If a man is called Leifur Eiríksson his name is Leifur and he is Eiríksson (the son of a man called Eiríkur). A woman called Þórdís Haraldsdóttir has the personal name Þórdís and is Haraldsdóttir (i.e. Harald’s daughter). If Þórdís Haraldsdóttir marries Leifur Eiríksson she does not become Eiríksson, like her husband. She continues to be Þórdís Haraldsdóttir. If Þórdís and Leifur have a son, he would have Leifsson as a last name, and their daughter would have Leifsdóttir as her last name. We have to keep in mind that Eiríksson, Leifsson and Haraldsdóttir are not really names as such, but patronymics, which refer to their fathers. For this reason Icelanders always have to be referred to by their given names. The patronymic is never used alone. Icelanders say, for example, the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, or even President Ólafur, but never "President Grímsson". There is a limited number of Icelanders who do have family names.


The established church in Iceland is the Evangelical Lutheran Church. There are many Lutheran churches in Iceland and services are usually held every Sunday at 11 a.m., or 2 p.m. There is also a Catholic church in Reykjavík, and a number of churches for other groups.

Church of Iceland 92,2% Other Lutherans 3,1% Roman Catholics 0,9% Others 3,8%


Literacy has been universal in Iceland since the end of the eighteenth century. In 1907 school attendance was made obligatory for all children aged 10-14; before the age of 10 they were generally taught at home. In 1946 compulsory school attendance was extended, and at present it covers the ages between 7 and 16. Those who wish to continue their education, either go to various specialized schools or to secondary schools.

Academic education in the full sense did not begin in Iceland until 1847 with the formation of a Theological Seminary. It was followed in 1876 by a Medical School and in 1908 by a School of Law. These three institutions were merged into one in 1911 when the University of Iceland was established. Later, a fourth Faculty of Philosophy was added, primarily dealing with Icelandic philology, history and literature. The university’s main building was opened in 1940. All education in Iceland is free of charge.

Social Affairs

Since World War II Iceland has enjoyed a high standard of living, comparable to that of the other Nordic countries. From 1901 to 1960 real national income rose ten-fold with an annual average rate of growth of just over 4 percent. During this period the national economy underwent dramatic changes, transforming it from a subsistence into an exchange economy through rapid urbanization and other features of industrialization.

The quality of housing in Iceland is probably higher than anywhere else, while the Icelandic roads are poorer than in most countries with a comparable living standard. This is mainly due to the size of the country and the scarcity of the population.


Fish and fish products constitute more than 70% of Iceland’s exports and it thus by far the most important industry. The continental shelf around Iceland, where the warm Gulf Stream and the cold nutrient currents from the Arctic meet, offers very favorable conditions for various kinds of marine life, and are extremely rich fishing grounds. The fishing grounds, which are Iceland’s main natural resources, require strict protection, and fish catches are tightly controlled. The main species of fish are: cod, haddock, saithe, redfish, herring and capelin.


Agricultural land in Iceland is mostly used for growing grass for the making of hay and silage as fodder for livestock. Sheep and dairy cattle make up the main livestock in Icelandic farming. Presently, Icelandic farmers produce more lamb and various dairy products than is needed for the national consumption. And as in most other places in the world, these commodities are not exported without considerable difficulties.


It is estimated that the potential total exploitable hydro-electric power in Iceland amounts to 64,000 Gwh p.a., of which 45,000 Gwh p.a. are considered to be economical. However, only 4,200 Gwh p.a. were being utilized in 1990.

No one knows exactly how much geo-thermal power is available in Iceland but it is without much doubt tremendous. In 1990 the exploited capacity had reached about 5,000 Gwh p.a., bringing 81% of the population geothermal heating for their houses. Power is therefore among our most important resources, and more importantly, this is all pollution-free energy.

Given the incredible growth potential of manufacturing industries, Icelandic authorities have sought to make the country more appealing for various power intensive industries. Presently aluminum accounts for about 11% of the country’s exports, while other manufacturing products account for about 12%, including ferr-silicone.


Sayings like "There is no weather in Iceland, only samples" or "If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute and it will change," indicate the variability of the Icelandic climate. It is cool temperate and oceanic, influenced by the country’s location in the boundary zone where the polar front separates air currents of polar and tropical origin, and by the confluence of two different ocean currents, the Gulf Stream flowing clockwise around the south and west coasts, and the East Greenland polar current curving southeastwards round the north and east coasts, which meet off the southeast coast. A third element affecting the climate is the Arctic drift ice brought by the polar current, which occasionally blocks the north and east coasts in late winter and early spring. The advance of drift ice causes a considerable fall in the temperature and usually some decrease in precipitation. Midnight Sun: For two to three months in summer there is continuous daylight in Iceland, and early spring and late autumn enjoy long twilights. The really dark period (three to four hours daylight) lasts from about mid-November until the end of January. Since 1965 the climate has been considerably cooler than during the period 1920-65. Fluctuations in average annual temperature are more pronounced in Iceland than most other places, mainly owing to the fact that the country is located just south of the main channel through which the ice exits from the Arctic. In Britain, for instance, the deviation is only one-third of that in Iceland. The crucial difference between the a warm period and a cold one is a matter of merely 1.5°C.

Capital: Reykjavík ("Smoky Bay")

Population of Iceland 2004: 293,500

President of Iceland (since 1996): Dr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

Prime Minister of Iceland (since 2009): Ms. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.

Currency: Icelandic kronur (Rate of exchange approx. Feb. 2009. 115 Ikr = 1 US$)

Total area of Iceland: 39,756 square miles


The Icelandic Coat of Arms

The Icelandic Coat of Arms is a silvery cross in a sky-blue field with a fiery red cross in the silvery one. The shield-bearers are the four guardian spirits of the land: A bull to the right of the shield, a giant to the left, a vulture to the right above the bull, and a dragon to the left above the giant. The shield rests on a slab of basalt.

Coat of Arms


The Icelandic National Flag

The Icelandic National Flag is sky-blue (Colour: SCOTDIC No. 693009) with a snow-white (Colour: SCOTDIC No. 95) cross and fiery red (Colour: SCOTDIC Iceland Flag Red) cross in the white cross. The arms of the crosses extend entirely to the edges of the flag, and their width is 2/9th, but the red cross is 1/9th of the width of the flag. The blue field is thus divided into rectangular squares: Those nearest to the flag-pole are equilateral and the outer squares are equally wide, but twice as long. The proportional figures for the widt and length of the flag are 18:25.

 Icelandic Flag


Geothermal Heat

Iceland is richer in hot springs and high-temperature activity than any other country in the world. High-temperature activity is limited to the new volcanic median zone where there are 14 solfatara fields. They are characterized by stam vents, mud pools, and precipitation of sulphur.

The main high-temperature areas are Torfajökull east of Hekla and Grímsvötn in the Vatnajökull glacier. Next in order of size are Hengill near Reykjavík, which is now being exploited to provide hot water for space heating in the capital, Kerlingarfjöll, Námafjall, Kverkfjöll and Krísuvík. The total power output of the Torfajökull area, which is the largest, is estimated to be equivalent to 1,500 megawatts. Some of the high-temperature areas have workable sulphur deposits.

Low -temperature fields. Hot springs are found all over Iceland, but they are rare in the eastern basalt area. There are about 250 geothermal areas of this type with a total of about 800 hot springs. The average temperature of their water is 75°celsius (167°F). The biggest hot spring in Iceland, Deildartunguhver, has a flow of 150 litres (40 gallons) of boiling water per second. Some of the hot springs are spouting springs or geysirs, the most famous being Geysir in Haukadalur in south Iceland, from which the international word geysir is derived. It used to eject a water column to a height of about 180 feet, but has been "lazy" in later years. Another renowned geysir in the same field as Geysir is Strokkur. Springs charged with carbon dioxide are to be found in some districts, mainly in Snæfellsnes, but have not yet been utilized. Since the last Hekla eruption, springs rising from under the new lava have also been found to be charged with carbon dioxide.



Among the most distinctive features of Iceland are its glaciers, which cover 4,536 square miles (11,800 km2) or 11,5% of the total area of the country. During the past few decades, however, they have markedly thinned and retreated owing to a milder climate, and some of the smaller ones have all but vanished.

Largest glaciers in Europe: By far the largest of the glacier caps is Vatnajökull in southeast Iceland with an area of 3,240 square miles (8,400km2), equal in size to all the glaciers on the European mainland put together. It reaches a thickness of 3,000 feet (1,000m). One of its southern outlets, Breidamerkurjökull, descends to sea level.

Avalanches: These are common in the northwest, north and east, where the steep mountain slopes, covered with deep snow, threaten the inhabited areas. In many of those areas farms have been destroyed and people killed by avalanches. The worst disaster of this kind in recent times occurred in the town of Neskaupstadur on the east coast in December 1974, when an avalanche destroyed a large fish-processing plant and some houses, killing thirteen people. And on January 17, 1995 an avalanche killed 14 people in the small town of Súdavík in the west coast.



For Pen-Pals, please write to: MORGUNBLADID, Kringlunni 1, 103 Reykjavik, Iceland.  This daily newspaper prints ads for pen-pals free of charge.


Iceland on the Internet


Government Offices of Iceland

Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Icelandic Embassies

Alþingi - the Icelandic Parliament

Commerce and Fiance:

Central Bank of Iceland

Bureau of Statistics


Daily News from Iceland

Icelandic Morning Paper  (only in Icelandic)

Icelandic National Broadcasting Service

Tourism and Culture:

Iceland Tourist Board

City of Reykjavik

Icelandair USA

Christmas in Iceland

How do people in Iceland celebrate Christmas?

Christmas in Iceland is in many ways similar to Christmas in the United States. Families get together, enjoy good food and exchange presents. It is Iceland’s longest holiday, everything is closed from noon on Christmas Eve until December 27.

One major difference between Christmas in Iceland and in the U.S. is that Icelanders celebrate on Christmas Eve. The family gets together in the evening and that is when presents are exchanged. During the following two days everyone goes to Christmas parties and meets with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends.

Christmas is taken very seriously in Iceland. The whole house is cleaned, everyone gets something new to wear, people buy the best food, decorate the house inside and out and bake hundreds of cookies. It is truly a feast of the senses.

History of Christmas in Iceland

Long before Christianity was introduced, people in Northern Europe celebrated winter solstice which ushers in gradually lengthening days. In Iceland, winter solstice celebrations were grand events. Landowners would invite many people to their house and people would feast and drink extravagantly. After the adoption of Christianity in the year 1000 in Iceland, this celebration was integrated with the Christian Christmas Celebration. Thus, Icelandic Christmas are historically two celebrations: Celebrating the birth of Christ and celebrating the beginning of the lengthening daylight hours.

The Icelandic word for Christmas, Jól, contains no reference to Christ or to the church. It is a Norse word and also existed in Old English as Yule.

Icelanders celebrate Christmas in the evening of December 24 and this custom is thought to be a development from an old Catholic custom where people would have a wake the night before big church holidays as it was often believed that a new day started at 6 p.m., which is when Icelanders traditionally either go to church or begin the festivities at their home.

Icelanders celebrate 13 days of Christmas. The period starts on December 24 and ends on January 6, which is when all Christmas decorations are removed from streets and houses. This traditions is believed to extend back to the 4th and 5th centuries in Europe where the birth of Christ was celebrated on December 25th and his christening and the three wise men were celebrated on January 6.

Christmas Decorations and Preparations

Icelanders take their Christmas decorating very seriously. Everyone decorates. The most common decoration are Christmas trees which are almost universal in Iceland. The trees are decorated in similar manner to the United States, i.e. with lights, garland, ornaments etc. Live trees are still the norm although in recent years more and more people have been exchanging them for artificial ones. Before the use of pine trees as Christmas trees was introduced in Iceland in the 19thcentury, most Christmas trees were homemade. They pine tree gradually took over and became predominant in Iceland during World War II. The original decorations included candles, fruit (apples, oranges) as ornaments and garland made out of popcorn or cranberries. Sometimes even the presents were hung on the trees as decorations and tiny wrapped boxes are still popular as homemade ornaments.

Another common Christmas decoration is the Advent light. There are two different types of Advent lights in Iceland, both very popular. One is the Advent wreath, which has four candles, one for each Sunday of the Advent. This custom orgininated in Germany and was first seen in Iceland in the 1930s. It became widely popular in the 60s and 70s. The other type of Advent light are seven candles arranged in a triangle-shaped candelabra. These are mostly electric light nowadays. They are very popular and many families have more then one. They are usually put onto a window sill and are lit from the first Sunday of the Advent and until January 6.

Icelanders have also adopted many other traditions and customs familiar to Americans. They include Christmas lights indoors and out, santas, reindeer, wreaths etc. Icelanders usually do not go to the same extremes as can be seen widely in the U.S. with lights all around the house and live size decorations in their yards, although in recent years a few homes have been decorating their houses in this mannes, usually attracting a lot of attention and even media coverage.

Sending Christmas cards is an important tradition in Iceland. People send cards to their more distant relatives and friends and even children send cards to their friends. It is very important not to leave anyone out, especially of that person sent you a card last year. Many families send dozens of cards each Christmas and receive dozens of cards in turn. This is sometimes the only correspondance between distant friends or family members and they often include more in the card than just a Christmas greeting. It is traditional to at least thank for the year that is about to pass and, more often than not, a comment about seeing each other more often in the new year is included. Or, if people live far away, they may mention that everyone in the family is well and something special that has happened in the past year. One never uses Christmas cards for anything but happy news and wishes.

Þorláksmessa – St. Þorlákur’s Mass

Þorláksmessa is the day before Christmas, or December 23rd. It is generally the biggest shopping day in Iceland as people run to the stores in a frenzy to get the last Christmas presents.

Þorláksmessa is named after Þorlákur Þórhallsson, a priest in Iceland in the 12th century. He died on this day in 1193. He was canonized by Althingi (the Icelandic Parliament) in 1198. There are two feastdays of Þorlákur, December 23rd is one and July 20th is the other.

The dish of the day is skate. The reason for this is that it is the last day of the Christmas fast and no one was supposed to eat meat. The skate is pickled and putrefyed because, much like shark, skate has enzymes that can be harmful when consumed fresh. It is served mostly with boiled potatoes. The tradition of eating skate on December 23rd is still very popular in Iceland despite the strong smell of ammonia that comes from the pickling and putrefying of the fish. However, many go to restaurants to enjoy the food so as not to introduce the smell into the house.

Children Come First

Church holidays, especially Easter and Christmas, have become an important strand in the social fabric of Iceland. As in many other countries, Icelandic Christmas is centered around children. For example, Christmas is not seen as an occasion for drinking alcohol. Families get together, enjoy good food, dress up in their best clothes and spend time with each other. Christmas, more than any other time of the year, is when Icelanders abroad travel home to be with their families.

Children get around 2-3 weeks of Christmas holidays. In elementary and middle school, the last day of school before Christmas is called “small Christmas”. On this day, children bring cookies and sodas to school, light candles in their previously decorated classrooms, sing Christmas carols and sometimes even dance around a Christmas tree. This tradition is so popular with elementary schoolchildren that many of them have insisted on continuing this in high school and they decorate their classrooms and spend the day walking from classroom to classroom, admiring each other’s handiwork. Although some teachers still insist on having classes this last day of school, much to the dismay of their students, this day is gradually becoming more of a holiday and less of a schoolday.

Christmas Dinner

In centuries past, most people would slaughter a lamb and have ‘kjötsúpa’ for Christmas dinner, a meat broth with bits of meat in it. Kjötsúpa is still common in Iceland, although not as Christmas dinner. Poorer families would have ptarmigan for Christmas.

Nowadays, the most common Christmas dishes in Iceland are ham (hamborgarahryggur), smoked lamb (hangikjöt) and ptarmigan (rjúpa). Ptarmigan is no longer a food for the poor and has become very popular with Icelanders, and the ptarmigan hunting season is one of the most anticipated events of the year for hunters. These dished are lavishly prepared with side dishes including potatoes, prepared in many different ways, peas and beans, gravy, jam etc. The cook usually spends most of the day cooking, with help, of course, from other family members.

The ‘Christmas Cat’

An old Icelandic folklore states that everyone has to get one new piece of clothing at Christmas. Anyone who was left out was in danger of being eaten by a malicious beast called the Christmas Cat. The Christmas Cat is Grýla’s cat (see Yule Lads) and every effort was made to ensure that no-one would “go to the Christmas Cat”. Thus, everyone worked very hard to make a new piece of clothing for each member of the household.

The first stories about the Christmas Cat arose in the 19th century and were probably aimed at lazy children. It seemes to have worked as, to this day, everyone gets a new piece of clothing either before or at Christmas.

Similar stories exist about a bull in the Baltics and about a goat in Norway.

The Yule Lads

Icelanders have not one, but thirteen Santas, or Yule Lads. These lads are not related to Santa Claus in any way. They are descendants of trolls and were originally used to scare children. In the last century, however, they have become a lot friendlier.

The number of Yule Lads has varied throughout the centuries but now they are consistently thirteen. The number 13 was first seen in a poem in the 18th century and the names that they carry today was published in Jón Árnason’s folklore collection of 1862. Their current names are: Stekkjastaur (Sheepfold Stick), Giljagaur (Gilly Oaf), Stúfur (Shorty), Þvörusleikir (Spoon-licker), Pottasleikir (Pot-licker), Askasleikir (Bowl-licker), Hurðaskellir (Door-slammer), Skyrgámur (Skyr-glutton), Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-pilfer), Gluggagægir (Peeper), Gáttaþefur (Sniffer), Ketkrókur (Meat-hook) and Kertasníkir (Candle-begger). As you can tell from these names, the lads are very mischievous and they have retained their unique characteristics to this day. They live in the mountains with their parents, Grýla and Leppalúði. They come to town, one by one, in the days before Christmas. The first one arrives on December 12th and the last one on December 23rd. Formerly, they tried to pilfer their favorite things or play tricks on people (hence their names), but now their main role is to give children small gifts. Every child in Iceland puts their best shoe on their bedroom window sill on December 12th (some try to put their boot, in the hope that they may get more, but so far the Yule Lads haven’t been fooled) and they get a small gift from each lad when he arrives in town. But beware not to be naughty or the lad might just leave a rotten potatoe in your shoe!

Their original clothing are rags that are similar to farmer’s clothes in the 18th century. and they are often seen carrying their favorite food. Nowadays, however, they are usually seen in familiar red clothing with white beards and black boots.

They often make appearances at Christmas dances, which are very popular among Icelandic children. Children (adults are of course welcome to join them) dance around a Christmas tree and sing carols. The highlight of the dance is when one of the Yule Lads joins the celebration and dances and sings with the kids and usually gives them a goody bag before he leaves.

The day after Christmas the first lad returns to the mountains. Then they leave, one by one, until the last one leaves on January 6th, which is the last day of the Christmas season.

A Silent Night

The ringing of the bells of the Lutheran Cathedral in Reykjavík, broadcast nationally as the beginning of a special religious service, is a signal for all (except those in church) to embrace and wish one another a Merry Christmas. This is the formal beginning of Christmas. After that it is time for dining.

All regular public services come to a standstill on Christmas Eve. No buses are running, no restaurants or places of entertainment are open. Fishing vessels are moored in port. Even hospitals are half-empty, for patients are allowed to go home if this can be done with safety. Those who live alone visit close relations or friends; it is simply assumed that everyone wants to be a member of a family at Christmas.

Christmas Eve is the high point of the holiday season in Iceland, and the sumptuous dinner is just the beginning of the night. But what the children have been waiting for so long - the opening of packages - cannot take place until a few details have been attended to: the table has to be cleared and the dishes washed, but there are many willing hands for that. The big moment arrives when everyone is sitting comfortably in the living room. And what can be found in those beautifully wrapped packages? Interestingly, books have been among the most popular items for Christmas gifts in Iceland for decades. Parents often give their children items such as clothes, skis or related gear, CDs or books. In recent years a cell phone has been at the top of many young people’s wishlist, and many have gotten them, introducing in Iceland the age of the cell phone. There are exchanges of gifts between the children, between husbands and wives, between visiting grandparents and the younger generations. There are presents for everyone from everyone in that pile at the base of the Christmas tree. It is a cheerful scene, full of warmth and happiness.

People rarely leave the house on Christmas Eve - except for going to church, and that practice is not very widespread. The streets are deserted; it is the quietest night of the year in towns, but just about every building is wearing a finery of bright lights. Many families end the evening by watching a late religious service on TV officiated by the Lutheran Bishop. If anyone happens to want some refreshments afterwards, there is plenty of home-made pastries, coffee and soft drinks. This is not a night for anything stronger.

As a rule, people sleep late the following morning. A festive Christmas Day lunch is traditional, but there seems to be growing preference for a dinner that is the main meal. Christmas Day is typically used for visiting family. Public services remain minimal or nonexistent. Although the Second Day of Christmas (Boxing Day, December 26th) is a major holiday - celebrated, among other things, with additional family visiting - the general scene in towns and villages by then calls to mind an ordinary Sunday. Buses are running again on regular schedules, and restaurants and places of entertainment attract crowds, especially in the evening - rather larger ones than usually on Sunday: it is finally socially acceptable to “lift a glass” as they saying goes in Iceland.

New Year’s Eve

If Icelanders don’t drink on Christmas Eve, they most certainly make up for it on New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve is probably the biggest party night of the whole year. The most distinguishing characteristic of an Icelandic New Year’s Eve are the fireworks. Everyone buys fireworks and on this night everyone is allowed light fireworks (ususally requires special permission from the authorities). And Icelanders make sure they take full advantage of that. Fireworks are lighted all night long, reaching the high point at midnight, when the sky lights up for a few minutes as the fire trucks and harbored ships ring their bells and blow their horns to welcome the new year. It is certainly the grandest display of fireworks you will ever see. After midnight, people gather either downtown to go clubbing or at parties where they drink the night away, often until the early hours of the morning.

Understandably, there is usually not much activity in Iceland on New Year’s Day, except perhaps for the younger children who run out to gather the sticks from the fireworks and there is often fierce competition over who find the most.

Þrettándinn – Last Day of Christmas

January 6th is normally referred to as þrettándinn (13th day). It is the last day of Christmas and is often referred to in English as ‘Twelfth Night’ or ‘Epiphany’. By this day, pretty much everything is back to normal; everyone is back at work and schools have started. In the evening of this day, families usually get together, have dinner, maybe light the remainder of their fireworks from New Year’s Eve and bid farewell to Christmas.

Back to Normal

Christmas decorations are taken down immediately after January 6th. Even though the coming weeks promise only a drab reality (a month will pass before the days get noticeably longer), most look ahead with a sense of renewal and confidence. Many have to be conservative with money to make up for recent overspending, but expressions of regrets are uncommon. After all, the Christmas season brought priceless experiences; a long string of bright days in the darkest of winter, good companionship and a leisurely pace of life not offered by any other season. It all comes to an end, the Christmas lights go out, signaling the return of ordinary activites. But Icelanders’ spirits remain fairly high - thanks to all the good times not so far back, and to the knowledge that the sun will rise a few minutes earlier and set a few minutes later each day.

Christmas in Icelandic

A few phrases in Icelandic:

Merry Christmas
Happy New Year
Santa Claus/Yule Lad
Christmas Tree
Christmas Present   
Christmas Card
Christmas Eve
Christmas Day
December 26th (Boxing Day)
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Day
Gleðileg jól
Gleðilegt ár
Annar í jólum

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