Last week I experienced my first Christmas away from my family. It was a Very Reykjavík Christmas, filled with traditional foods, good music, Christmas cheer and a healthy dose of chaos, as every good holiday should include. Here’s a little glimpse into an Icelandic Christmas as experienced by an American.
Þórláksmessa (23. desember)
December 23rd is called Þórláksmessa here, named after Saint Þórlákur Þórhallsson, bishop of Skálholt. (You can read more about the history of the day here thanks to my friend Sunna.) I woke in the early-morning darkness on Þórláksmessa and walked to Vesturbær for a job interview, then walked to campus as the sun was slowly rising. I met Erin and Leana at Norræna Húsið for the last day of the jóladagatal, because we knew the band Árstíðir would be playing.
On Þórláksmessa, many Icelanders eat skata, fermented skate fish. They say a lot of people cook this in their garages, because if you cook it in your kitchen, the smell might never escape. Apparently a recent poll suggests that just under 40% of Icelanders eat skata, and many of those are out in the countryside outside of Reykjavík. However, it is readily available at many restaurants in the city, including at the bistro inside Norræna Húsið. The smell that greeted us when we opened the heavy front door was just about as acrid and potent as I expected, and it kept getting worse. It permeated the entire top floor of the building. Thankfully, the jóladagatal is in the basement, so when we took the elevator down, we were greeted by the much more pleasant Christmasy smells of piparkökur and jólaglögg. Still, whenever someone would ride the elevator down, the doors would open and a tiny puff of fermented stink would emerge.
I don’t have a photo of the cooked skata, but here’s what it looks like before it’s cooked, when the stink is blessedly contained within plastic tubs:
In any case, Árstíðir put on a lovely short show in the Black Box theater.
I think Erin and I did some last-minute shopping and gift wrapping that afternoon. In the evening we headed to a free concert at Reykjavík Roasters and enjoyed a cozy hour or so of music from Axel Flóvent and Myrra Rós.
We strolled back home along Laugavegur, along with hundreds of other people. I’m not sure where this tradition comes from, but on the evening of Þórláksmessa, people in the city stroll Laugavegur, doing last-minute shopping and enjoying free treats from some of the local merchants (Erin and I took cups of what we thought would probably be wine or jólaglögg, but it turned out to be some sort of sweet, sticky lamb gravy…). Iceland being Iceland, everyone sees people they know, and it’s almost like some sort of warm community reunion.
Aðfangadagur // Christmas Eve
In Iceland, Christmas begins at 6.00 PM on the 24th. Christmas Day is almost more of an afterthought; the twenty-fourth IS Christmas. This is not terribly different for me, as my family has always celebrated on the twenty-fourth as well. We go to the Christmas Eve service at church, eat lasagna (no one knows how that became our tradition, it just is) and then open gifts.
Here in Iceland, just about everything shuts down on the afternoon of the 24th (if not before) and is closed for at least a couple days, whereas in the States, there’s always at least one store open somewhere within an easy distance. So there was a lot of pressure to make sure you got all your errands taken care of. It’s a similar atmosphere to when people stock up on groceries before a storm, except a bit more festive. I went out on the 24th to buy one last Christmas present and do one last Bónus grocery run. Erin came over in the afternoon and we finished wrapping presents and tried to help Ásta a bit with some cooking and cleaning. The relatives started arriving in the afternoon (Ásta’s parents and Addi’s mom were here) and it was soon a full and noisy house – a truly authentic Christmas experience, I think.
Erin and I monopolized the TV to watch the last episode of the Danish jóladagatal. We were unreasonably excited:
Ásta and Ólöf were furiously cooking away in the kitchen. Traditionally, people sit down to eat when the clock strikes 6.00, but we are a bit less traditional in this household. When the clock struck 6.00, everyone exchanged hugs and kisses and said gleðileg jól (Erin and I learned that you’re not supposed to say this before 6.00 – oops!). And then we continued cooking and hanging out. Eventually we sat down to eat a wonderful Christmas meal: hamborgarhryggur (smoked pork), brúnar kartöflur (caramelized potatoes), rauðkál (red cabbage), grænar baunir (green peas), green salad, asparagus, and of course sósa (sauce). The sauce Ásta made might have been the most Icelandic thing on the table – not only was it sósa (which is like a holy part of any True Icelandic Meal), it was made with Coca-Cola (which is like the Holy Soft Drink in Iceland). We had some Danish hvítöl (non-alcoholic Christmas ale) to accompany the meal.
After dinner, we gathered around the pink Christmas tree and opened gifts.
Erin and I were truly well taken care of and had plenty of gifts to open, including a number of matching gifts – matching panda sleep masks, matching coffee mugs, matching wool socks. Leon and Nói were of course the most excited members of the family. Christmas seems much more festive when you get to watch little ones open gifts.
By the time we finished opening gifts, I think it was nearly midnight, but we still had to eat dessert. Ásta and Ólöf prepared a special creamy orange dessert, and it was the perfect opportunity for the Scandinavian tradition of the möndlugjöf. The möndlugjöf, or almond gift, is a small gift given to the person who finds an almond hidden in his or her bowl. Erin and I were entrusted with the solemn duty of securing this year’s möndlugjöf, and we took it seriously, deliberating for quite some time and finally settling on a kaleidoscope from Tiger. Somehow there was a little almond mishap and both Leon and Addi found almonds, but amma had brought another möndlugjöf, so it all worked out.
Jóladagur // Christmas Day
Erin and I woke late on Christmas Day and lazed around for a while. We had planned to hold a Christmas brunch with some friends at Vita’s dorm, but we ended up canceling since a couple people couldn’t come and since I injured my foot and didn’t want to make it worse by walking too much. So we had our own little brunch of bacon and eggs, then Erin headed out for Christmas dinner with her Icelandic relatives. I joined the family for Christmas dinner at Amma Ólöf’s house.
Amma Ólöf cooked up another very classic Icelandic Christmas meal: hangikjöt (smoked lamb), boiled potatoes in cream sauce, peas, corn, roast veggies, and of course Icelandic jólaöl, a fascinating blend of malt extract and appelsín (orange soda). Oh, and also laufabrauð – intricately carved rounds of deep-fried dough. So fried, so tasty.
I walked home a bit early so I could Skype with my family in Washington, who were holding their Christmas on Christmas Day since my brother and sister both had to work on Christmas Eve. It was of course lovely to see all their faces.
I didn’t take any photos on Christmas Day, it seems, so you’ll have to imagine.
Several people asked me whether I was homesick this Christmas, and I am thankful that I can truthfully answer no. Would I have loved to be with my family in Washington? Of course. But I was excited to experience something new, and grateful to be surrounded by loving family and friends here as well. Spending Christmas in Iceland was the plan last year, but that didn’t happen. I’m not sure if I ever wrote about it here, but basically what happened is that I had a pretty rough first semester. When finals were done and the reality and loneliness of Christmas break set in, combined with health issues I was dealing with at the time, I just had to go home. I bought a ticket on a Tuesday night and left Wednesday afternoon, I think.
I am indescribably grateful to be in a much better place this year than I was at this time last year. I’m thankful for Ásta and her family being so welcoming, and thankful for Erin being here as well. It was nice to experience Icelandic Christmas with someone else in my shoes.
Christmas may have passed, but the holidays are far from over. New Year’s is a huge deal here, and we’re going to have another big family and friends dinner at the house, watch áramótaskaupið (an annual TV sketch show that pokes fun at the year’s happenings), and wander up to Hallgrímskirkja to ring in the New Year with a never-ending volley of fireworks.