Christmas and New Year in Iceland is truly magical. Christmas lights brighten the shortest of the winter days in Iceland. The countless fireworks set the night sky on fire for hours at New Year. Add in northern lights, ice cave discovery, and a winter wonderland landscape and you can see why this is one of the most popular times of year to visit.
How short are the days and how is the weather?
Christmas in Iceland does come with some drawbacks, sort of. December is one of the darkest months of the year, with sunrise around 11:00am and sunset at about 3:30pm. This sounds terrible but the reality is it starts to get light enough to adventure around 10am until 5pm on clear day. In our eyes, that’s more than enough time to have an adventure during the day. Coupled with an 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 houses you’d be forgiven for forgetting about the darkness at all.
As for how the weather goes, 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 changes from day to day. However, one of the big positives about New Year in Iceland is that, believe it or not, the winter temperatures generally are quite mild. In fact, they hover around the freezing point, 0°C (32°F) most of the time. The odd day even creeps up to 10°C (50°F).
Sometimes, even with warmer temperatures the wind can make it feel colder than it is though. The wind in Iceland can be quite harsh. But, it is not constant. And it is not everywhere. Our expertly run tours account for weather patterns as much as we can. Sometimes, we amend the route of the tour to get calm sites. Other times, we move the trip to different days, if necessary.
Snow is loved by all. We know that. You know that. For some of our guests it may be the first time they see snow. To watch kids from our tour throw snowballs at each other for the first time is one of our happiest moments of winter. But sadly, snow isn’t guaranteed. Since Iceland in winter is a lot warmer than expected, you can still get rain instead. This doesn’t mean you won’t find snow though. At the tops of the mountains there’s practically a year round sprinkling. To get that guaranteed winter wonderland experience you should join us for a glacier hike or ice cave tour.
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 glow all day. Often referred to as the golden hour. We can it the golden day.
Finally, good packing is essential for winter. Bad clothing makes a big difference for happiness levels when the weather turns bad. So check out our packing guide that’ll keep you dry and warm while in Iceland.
Celebrating Christmas in Iceland
Icelandic Christmas is celebrated on the night of December 24th. Not the 25th like many other western 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 can be 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.
Fun fact: 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!
The Thirteen Yule Lads – yes, there are 13 of them
Christmas and New Year in Iceland is not a quick affair. Officially, the Christmas festivities last for 26 days. You heard that correct! The first 13 days are dedicated to the Yule Lads who count down the days from December 11th to Christmas day. 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. On Christmas day, Santa still brings presents too of course. The 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.
Let’s be clear, the Icelandic Yule Lads are in no way related to Santa Clause. In fact, they are descendants of trolls who would scare children back in the day. Needless to say, they have become civilised in the last century or so and have become a lot friendlier and kinder. 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 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, Reyjavík 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 – 24th 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.
On the 23rd of December a special Mass 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 last minute panic buying for any tourist who has lost their bags in transit. 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.
Leave the city lights and explore the county
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.
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 at 6pm with a family dinner, before visiting a bon fire, or brenna, to mingle and socialise. At 10:30pm 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, the New Years madness starts, as the credit roll on the TV screen, with fireworks lighting up the dark winter skies until the morning.
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 Burro Tapas + Steak for a South American flare, 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. You can also visit Nostra restaurant for a finer dining experience. And finally, Geiri Smart Restaurant has its doors open during the entire holiday period as well.
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.