The most wonderful time of the year is upon us where the city gets lit up by countless Christmas lights to brighten the shortest of the winter days in Iceland. Visiting Iceland over the holidays is magical and the perfect way to spend Christmas and New Years, where you can experience adventures by day and celebrate by night.
How short are the days and how is the weather?
December is one of the darkest months of the year in Iceland with sunrise being around 11:00am and sunset at about 3:00pm (being light from around 10am until 4pm) but is brightly lit up by countless Christmas and advent lights, decorated trees, houses and windows all around town. However, with long dark nights it gives you ample time to chase for Northern Lights that often light up the sky in their stunning green hues, enchanting everyone who sees them.
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 a thrilling to witness the power of the weather! The forecast changes from day to day, but winter temperatures generally being quite mild, hovering just a few degrees below or above 0°C (30°F). The wind in Iceland can be quite harsh, making it feel much colder than it actually is and any kind of precipitation is to be expected. Here’s hoping that it’ll be in the form of snow for a white Christmas. The benefit of the short daylight hours we have is how amazing it is for photography, with that low light giving that perfect glow to everything!
There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing so here’s our packing guide that’ll keep you dry and warm in the coldest winter.
Celebrating Christmas in Iceland
Icelandic Christmas is celebrated on the night of December 24th, where families gather for Christmas dinner at 6 o’clock sharp, dressed in their finest attire as the church bells ring in Christmas. This is 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. With Icelanders selling most books than any other nation in the world, mostly leading up to Christmas with the Christmas Book Flood, chances are that there is a book or two under the tree for you. It is a cosy night spent reading your new book!
The Thirteen Yule Lads – yes, there are 13 of them
Officially, Christmas lasts for 26 days, with the 13 Yule Lads counting down the days from December 11th onwards when they start coming one by one into town bringing little presents to put in the shoes of the children who have behaved nicely the day before. The last day of Christmas is 13 days after December 24th as they travel back to the mountains to prepare for next years celebration.
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, bringing joy and gifts to the kids. They each have a peculiar name, describing 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 involving anything from food to shopping to ice skating. Ingólfstorg square turns into an ice skating rink from December 1st – 24th, where you can rent a pair of skates and helmet and swirl into the Christmas sprit, followed by hot chocolate or Mulled wine from the stands next to the ice skating ring or the numerous restaurants giving their warm drink menu a Christmas flare.
Make a trip to the Forestry Association in Iceland in Elliðárdalur for their annual Craft & Design Market to shop to get your hands on locally designed and crafted Christmas presents. Immerse yourself in sights, smells and sounds of traditional Icelandic Christmas traditions at Árbær Open Air Museum. Prepare traditional Icelandic Christmas food and crafts such as candle making and Laufarbrauð cutting and maybe if you’re lucky meet a yule lad who tend to hang around there in the days before Christmas.
On December 23rd is the day called Þorláksmessa or Mass of St. Thorlac, which is a celebratory day 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, pick up the last of the Christmas presents followed by a stroll down the main shopping street of Laugarvegur where all of the shops stay open well into the night. Sounds like the perfect way to spend the last day before Christmas. Although it’s a long held tradition to eat Skata (buried and fermented stingray) with potatoes on Þorláksmessa. This is one tradition you don’t have to try yourself whilst visiting during Christmas, but we are sure you’ll catch the ammonia like smell from some of the seafood restaurants downtown.
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 where we visit the warm geothermal waters of the Secret Lagoon and lunch amongst the plants in the greenhouse at Friðheimar Tomato Farm before visiting the spectacular sights within the golden circle as they’ve dressed in white for the season.
Light my fire – New Years Eve in Reykjavík
New Years eve is a major night in all of our calendar with a strict schedule for the day. The festivities start at 6 o’clock with a family dinner before visiting a bon fire, or brenna, to mingle and socialise. At 22:30 there is the long awaited Áramótaskaup or New Years Jest, 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.
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 in order to start the new year right is with a clean slate, meaning 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 each year! 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, Matarkjallarinn highlights the most delicious Icelandic ingredients with a holiday twist, visit Nostra restaurant for a finer dining experience, and Geiri Smart Restaurant has its doors open during the entire holiday period as well.
Hi there, I’m Dagný Björg, a twenty-something Reykjavík-dweller, mother, designer and freelance journalist who loves getting lost in nature, coffee and easy Sunday mornings.