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© David Williams
Christmas in Iceland


Iceland during the depth of winter can be a cold and dark country. With the sun above the horizon for only a short time each day and winter snow blanketing most of the country, social occasions are welcome diversions from the vagaries of the weather. No wonder the Icelanders enjoy Christmas !
The village of Reykjahlíð sits at the northern shore of Mývatn in northern Iceland. Much of the lake is frozen during the depths of winter, though parts are kept free by warm springs.
This winter view of Reykjavík looks northwards. The tall building on the left is the church Hallgrímskirkja.

Like many other northern people, the Icelanders look forward to Christmas as a welcome break during the bleak midwinter months. The festivities date back to an ancient pagan Yule feast but this was later taken over as a Christian celebration and in a land where poverty and hardship were the norm, the Yule celebration (held around the time of the solstice) was an excuse for feasting and merriment. The Sagas credit the Norwegian king Hakon with making "the Yule celebration begin at the same time as that of Christians and that each man should have a measure [about five gallons] of ale, or else pay in money, and celebrate while the ale lasted." These descendants of the Vikings certainly knew how to banish the midwinter blues!

Today, Icelanders celebrate Christmas in a similar fashion to other European peoples. It is essentially a family affair and preparations, especially cooking, start well before the event. The long hours of darkness and the severity of the winter weather tend to keep the festivities centred around the home, but outside the balconies are decorated with a myriad of coloured bulbs that help banish the darkness.

Thanks to the bounteous harvest of fish from the surrounding seas, the Icelanders are now a comparatively rich nation and material conditions have improved dramatically this century. The Icelanders have rushed headlong into consumerism and Reykjavík`s shops are thronged in the run-up to Christmas. The long and hard Icelandic winters have nurtured a great love of books and these are very popular Christmas presents though their sales are now hard-pressed by the increasing popularity of LP records. As in Britain, children clamour for the "in" presents and generally, Christmas is very commercial — much to the delight of the shopkeepers! Most consumer goods are imported and rather expensive so some of the more adventurous shoppers go for a one-day shopping trip to cities such as Glasgow.

Christmas trees aren`t as common as in other European countries as the land is too poor to grow substantial forests, but the trees that are sold help pay for the developing forestry industry. However, a huge Christmas tree, an annual gift from the people of Oslo, is erected in Austurvöllur, Reykjavík`s main square.

Santa Claus is a recent addition to Christmas festivities. Back in the days of Yuletide celebrations, there were characters called jólasveinar or Yuletide Lads. These were supposed to be the (unlucky) thirteen half-trolls that were the offspring of a bogeywoman called Gryla. Today they have been made more socially acceptable, with their child-eating habits replaced by mere mischievousness, and boys play these roles dressed up in Santa Claus outfits — an interesting example of how parts of one tradition are taken over by another.

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