Christmas and New Year in Iceland is truly magical. Christmas lights brighten the streets on the shortest days and the countless fireworks on New Year set fire to the night sky. Add in Northern Lights, blue ice caves, and a snowy winter landscape and you can see why this is one of the most popular times of year to visit.
Give the gift of Iceland!
A quick segue before we delve into the frivolities of the Icelandic holiday season. This post has been updated on December 21st this year, in the midst of the pandemic. Despite news of multiple vaccines and dropping case numbers in Iceland, we are very aware that many people are still wary to pick a date to travel just yet. However, what we are discovering is that many of our followers are getting excited too. In light of that we now offer the option of purchasing an open ended gift voucher that can be used for any Hidden Iceland tour. Perfect as a last minute Christmas gift to someone you love who has their eyes set on traveling to Iceland once it’s safe to do so again. The gift voucher is valid for as long as necessary and you can claimed at any time of year.
Anyway, that’ll do for the little sales plug. You can click here to purchase a gift voucher with Hidden Iceland. But I’d recommend reading about some of the Icelandic holiday traditions first to learn all about Iceland during the holidays.
First things first, how short are the days?
The short answer is the winter days are very short. The darkest day of the year at winter solstice is on December 21st where we only get 4 hours of daylight hours in Reykjavík, even less in the north and in the Westfjords where tall mountains block the sun for rising at all. Sunrise in Reykjavík is at 11:23 am and sunset is at 3:30 pm. From that day onwards each day becomes a little bit longer each day. So in this respect, Christmas in Iceland does come with some drawbacks. But is the limited daylight only negative?
It all sounds rather bad, but it has some perks. Despite the limited direct sunlight, the reality is that on a clear day there’s still usable daylight between 10:00 am and 5:00pm. That’s more than enough time to have an adventure during the day. Pivotally, it then allows for a very extended hunt for the northern lights at night and it becomes a benefit, rather than a drawback. After you add in the countless Christmas lights, decorated trees, and brightly lit houses you’d be forgiven for forgetting about the darkness at all.
Also, the big benefit of the short daylight hours is how amazing it is for photography! With the sun barely reaching above the horizon we are treated a perfect twilight glow all day. In other countries it is referred to as the golden hour. Here in Iceland it’s called the golden day.
And what about the weather?
Have you ever experienced all four season in one day? This is a common occurrence here. A snowstorm can turn to sunshine in the matter of minutes and vice versa. It’s thrilling to witness the power of the weather! The forecast really does changes from day to day and always keeps us on our toes.
However, one of the big positives about visiting Iceland even during winter the temperatures generally are quite mild.Temperatures in Reykjavík can drop down to -10°C with highs reaching 10°C (14°F – 50°F), average temperatures hover around the 0°C (32°F) mark.
The Thirteen Yule Lads
Christmas and New Year in Iceland is not a quick affair. Officially, the Christmas festivities last for 26 days. Yes, you heard that correctly! The first 13 days are dedicated to the Yule Lads who count down the days from December 11th to Christmas Eve. Each night they come one by one into town bringing little presents to put in the shoes of the children who have behaved nicely the day before.
Following Christmas, there are another 13 days where the Yule Lads travel back to the mountains to prepare for next years celebration. These 13 days are often filled with other family events as well as the New Year’s Eve fireworks.
The Icelandic Yule Lads are descendants of trolls who back in the day would scare children, truly. Needless to say, they have become civilised in the last century or so and have become a lot friendlier and kinder. So rather than scaring children they now bring joy and gifts instead.
Each Yule Lad has a peculiar name, matching their peculiar personalities. There is Stekkjastaur (Sheepfold Stick), Giljagaur (Gully Gawk), Stúfur (Shorty / Stubby), Þvörusleikir (Spook Licker), Pottasleikir (Pot Licker), Askasleikir (Bowl Licker), Hurðaskellir (Door Slammer), Skyrgámur (Skyr Glutton), Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage Pilfer), Gluggagægir (Window Peeper), Gáttaþefur (Door Sniffer), Ketkrókur (Meat Hook) and my personal favourite Kertasníkir (Candle Beggar).
Many children, myself and my son included, leave a candle for Kertasníkir in the window the night before he comes and he leaves it half eaten along with the little present for the children.
Reykjavík, The Christmas City
Each December, Reykjavík transforms into a magical festive city! This involves anything from food to shopping to ice skating. The main square in the downtown Reykjavik, Ingólfstorg square, turns into an ice skating rink. From December 1st you can rent a pair of skates and helmet and swirl into the Christmas spirit. Afterwards, it’s a welcome tradition to grab a cup of hot chocolate or Mulled wine from the stands nearby. Numerous restaurants also give their warm drink menu a Christmas flare.
Also, you can make a trip to the Forestry Association in Iceland in Elliðárdalur for their annual Craft & Design Market. Everyone loves a handcrafted souvenir, even the Icelanders. You can immerse yourself in sights, smells and sounds of traditional Icelandic Christmas traditions at Árbær Open Air Museum. Here, you can prepare traditional Icelandic Christmas food and crafts such as candle making and Laufarbrauð cutting. If you’re lucky you might get to meet a yule lad or two who like to hang around there in the days before Christmas.
The less said about the vicious Grýla, Iceland’s Christmas Yule Cat, that eats anyone for not receiving new clothing for Christmas, the better. One things for sure, the sparkling, lit up statue in the main square is worth two looks as you do some last minute shopping.
Þorláksmessa, the night before Christmas
December 23rd a special day called Þorláksmessa is held at St. Thorlac’s. This special ceremony is a celebration in honour of Þorlákur, a bishop of Skálholt. In more recent years the day has become a part of Christmas where people finish decorating their houses and Christmas tree. They tend to pick up the last of the Christmas presents followed by a stroll down the main shopping street of Laugarvegur. Extended opening hours allow for picking up the last of the Christmas presents. Sounds like the perfect way to spend the last day before Christmas.
It’s a long held tradition to eat Skata (buried and fermented stingray) with potatoes on Þorláksmessa. However, this is one tradition you don’t have to try yourself whilst visiting during Christmas, unless you are brave. You can tell if this incredible dish is nearby from the smell of ammonia coming from the restaurants.
Celebrating Christmas in Iceland
Icelandic Christmas is celebrated on the night of December 24th. Not on the 25th like in many other countries. Families will typically gather for Christmas dinner at 6 o’clock sharp. Always dressed in their finest attire just as the church bells ring in Christmas. This night is usually a very intimate and festive evening that Icelanders spend with their nearest and dearest. After dinner the families gather around the Christmas tree to exchange presents.
Iceland sells more books per person than any other nation in the world! This is concentrated in the lead up to Christmas with the Christmas Book Flood. What better way to enjoy Christmas and New Year in Iceland than having a cosy night reading your new book!
Leave the city lights and explore the country
Pack your warmest attire and prepare for winter activities in the midst of the Icelandic winter. There is something magical about experiencing Icelandic winter outside of the city. Racing against the few hours of daylight, staying up to hunt for Northern Lights, walking in the freshly fallen snow and exploring the frozen sights. Look to join our Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Ice Cave 2 Day tour to travel the entire south coast and to venture into the depths of the glacier in a stunning ice cave.
Explore Reykjanes with us on New Years Eve, home to the UNESCO Geopark to witness the geothermal and volcanic landscape in Iceland, finishing the day at the 5,200 year old LAVA Tunnel, all at Reykjavík’s doorstep. It’s a short tour and the perfect way to spend the last day of the year before going out to celebrate with fireworks in the evening.
Or get warm with us on our Golden Circle tour. On this tour we visit the warm geothermal waters of the Secret Lagoon and have lunch amongst the plants in the greenhouse at Friðheimar Tomato Farm. The remainder of the day is spent visiting the snow covered sights within the Golden Circle.
Light my fire – New Years Eve in Reykjavík
New Year in Iceland is a great way to end your Christmas holiday. New Year’s eve is a major night in all of our calendars, with a strict schedule for the day. The festivities start with a family dinner, before visiting a bon fire, or brenna, to mingle and socialise. At 10:30 pm there is the long awaited Áramótaskaup or New Years Jest. This is an hour long comedy show in remembrance of the major events that happened in the year that just passed. Over 90% of Icelanders watch the comedy show, with the streets completely empty and quiet. Even if you don’t understand the language this is still a visual treat with many comedy sketches taking a slap stick approach to the more serious headlines.
Then at last, while the closing credits are rolling, the New Years madness starts with fireworks lighting up the dark winter skies until the morning and champagne classes held high for a toast.
It’s an old tradition in Iceland claiming that, to start the new year right with a clean slate, you must burn away the old year. There’s no need to tell the locals about this tradition, as every year they blow up more than an astonishing 500 tonnes worth of fireworks! You can buy your own from the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue teams who finance their operations by selling fireworks. With fireworks in hand and protective glasses on the nose, make your way to Hallgrímskirkja Church to count down into the new year.
Where to go for Christmas and New Years Eve dinner?
If planning to go out for dinner in the city on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve make your reservations early, as the places book out fast. Most restaurants offer a special menu over the holidays with a delicious festive twist. Look into dining at Sumac Grill + Drinks for a taste of pristine seasonal Icelandic ingredients influenced by Moroccan and Lebanon spices. Or check out Matarkjallarinn which highlights the most delicious Icelandic ingredients with a holiday twist just to name a couple.
Happy Holidays! Oh, and if you are inspired to purchase a gift voucher remember to click the link here.
Hi there! I’m Dagný Björg, a Reykjavík-dweller, mother and designer who grew up in the remote West Fjords of Iceland. I spent my summers growing up camping with my family all around the incredible country that is Iceland. Now I do my best to ensure that everything within Hidden Iceland keeps running smoothly and my local knowledge is put to good use when creating all your fantastic itineraries.