Christmas in Iceland: Tradition & Origin

Words: Faith Thurnwald
Photos: Faith Thurnwald
I spent some time in Iceland. This was before the world was thrust into a shit show of squeaky-clean sanitized civilians, where conspiracy theories revolved around the illuminati and chemtrails. It was a simpler time. Iceland was this almost ethereal, otherworldly space, stepping off the plane was like arriving on another planet. The landscape still mystifies me; glaciers that cover the country and melt into the sunset, boiling water bursting from below ground and exploding into mist, volcanoes, killer whales, and thirteen Christmas trolls called ‘the Yule Lads’. This is the stuff that only exists in an Aussie kid’s imagination; this is the stuff of dreams.

For me it wasn’t just the sheer beauty of the landscape however; it was the history, the culture and the people. Of course these are the things that all travelers fall in love with, but clichés exist for a reason, so leave me be. I fell in love with this country, maybe because it reminded me of home, the harsh reality of the land juxtaposed with its unrelenting beauty. To me, so reminiscent of Australia: both landscapes demand respect. But Australia’s beach and beer fuelled Christmases are decidedly lacking when compared to the intriguing cultural practices of the ideal virgin white, Icelandic Christmas.


During my time in Iceland I was a nanny. Perhaps because of this I’m still very much on the fence with the whole procreation situation, but watching a child’s joy around Christmas time while celebrating traditions so foreign to me was pretty damn delightful. The Yule Lads are thirteen mischievous, or even downright nasty trolls. They live in the mountains and come forth from their various holes and burrows around Christmas to cause some trouble. Each troll or lad has their own little quirks and will leave a treat or a potato in your shoe (placed on your bedroom windowsill at night) depending how you’ve behaved. On the thirteen nights leading up to Christmas children receive a visit from each Yule Lad, so behave yourselves, or you’ll get a rotting potato.

The Yule Lads idiosyncrasies range from stealing your food, slamming doors in the middle of the night and harassing sheep. However the Yule Lads are the least of your worries if you’ve been a naughty little shit. It’s Gryla you’ve got to worry about. Gryla is the mother to all thirteen of the lads, and she boils naughty children alive. Don’t you love that? I mean, what the hell does Santa even do? You might get some coal, but you sure as hell won’t get boiled alive in a witch’s cauldron deep in the freezing mountains of Iceland… give me Santa’s hollow threats any day.


Evidently there are certain similarities; the naughty or nice/punishment reward system, the thirteen days, and hairy men coming into your house with gifts (sign me up, I can be both naughty and nice). However, and I am sorry kids, but not only is Santa fake, he’s not even the original idea, more of a watered down, commercialised version born out of consumer capitalism.


Although there is no tangible trace of these certain Christmas traditions originating in Iceland, it’s the infamous question, who or what came first; chicken or egg? In my experience it’s usually the man. However, Christmas has always been a part of Icelandic traditions, even in pagan times, and perhaps this is where the trolls and witches come into play.


No matter the origin, today Iceland is a country that truly embraces and celebrates Christmas, and apparently each in their own way. I was enjoying some food with the neighbor and aunt of the kid I was looking after and as in testament to Icelandic hospitality there was lots of food on offer, ranging from cooked foal to cookies. It was between this odd snack combination that she exclaimed ‘I have a fetish for snowmen’. I don’t think she really knew what she was admitting to, but I’ll never look at a snowman the same. I just don’t trust those beady eyes any more.

Perhaps it was a due to the language gap or she was just being downright naughty, but this cheeky side was a pleasant surprise I found in the people of Iceland. One would be wrong to assume that living on such harsh land and in such isolation would harden these people. There is a naughty side to the locals, whether it’s an interest in snowmen or coining a stretch of beach the ‘Chinese takeaway’ due to the sheer amount of Chinese tourists lost to the sweeping tides, they know how to keep things light, in contrast to a land that is often covered in darkness.


Iceland humbles you, how can it not? With a volcanic eruption so large it shuts down air travel all over Europe, where the earth contains so much lava you can bake bread with it and where houses are heated from hot springs; Iceland truly is a Christmas miracle.


For More: Fallacious Freedom in ‘The Dispossessed’