Christmas Around the World
Reagan Library Christmas Tree Exhibit


Christmas Traditions


Christmas is known as Jol (Yule) in Iceland. It starts four weeks before proper Christmas, which begins on December 24th and ends on January 6th (Epiphany). Expect no fewer than 13 Icelandic Santa Clauses. Jolabokaflod is the tradition of giving books.

Updated July 2024
Posted December 2023


Iceland Flag

Iceland Christmas Tree
Christmas Tree

In IcelandicGleoileg Jol

Iceland Christmas Ornaments

Iceland Christmas Ornaments

Iceland Christmas Ornaments

Christmas in Iceland

WIKIPEDIAChristmas in Iceland
Starts four weeks before proper Christmas, which begins on 24 December (Aofangadagur) and ends thirteen days later on 6 January (Epiphany).

Traditionally, one candle is lit each Sunday, until four candles are lit on the 24th. At 6:00 p.m. church bells ring to start the Christmas celebration. The religiously observant and/or traditional Icelanders will attend mass at this time, while the secular Icelanders will begin their holiday meal immediately. After the meal is finished, they open gifts and spend the evening together. In Iceland people over the Yule holidays most often eat smoked lamb, ptarmigan, and turkey. Pork is also very popular.

Thirteen days before 24 December, children will leave their shoes by a window so that the 13 Yule Lads (jolasveinarnir) can leave small gifts in their shoes. The Yule Lads are the sons of two trolls, Gryla and Leppaluoi, living in the Icelandic mountains. Each of the Yule Lads is known for a different kind of mischief (for example slamming doors, stealing meat, stealing milk or eating the candles). Yule Lads traditionally wear early Icelandic wool clothing but are now known for the more recognizable red and white suit.

Each home typically sets up a Christmas tree indoors in the living room, with most decorating it on 11 December. In addition to the decorations, presents are put underneath the tree. It is also a tradition in many homes to boil fish (skate) on the 23rd. The day is known as Saint Thorlak mass (Porlaksmessa).

During the holiday season, it is traditional for families to work together to bake small cookies to serve or give to guests. Most common are thin gingerbread cookies which are decorated in many different colors of glaze. Many families also follow the tradition of making laufabrauo, a flat thin bread that is cut out using a special tool and folding technique.

The end of year is divided between two days: the Old Year's Day (Gamlarsdagur) and the New Year's Day (Nyarsdagur). At the night of the former and morning of the latter, Icelanders shoot up fireworks, blowing the old year away and welcoming the new one.

Thirteen days after the 24th, Icelanders say goodbye to the Yule Lads and other mystical creatures, such as elves and trolls. There are bonfires held throughout the country while the elves, Yule Lads, and Icelanders dance together before saying goodbye until the next Christmas. This celebration is known elsewhere as Epiphany Day.

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Icelandic Christmas Folklore

WIKIPEDIA1932 Poem: Yule Lads
Depicts mountain-dwelling characters and monsters who come to town during Christmas. The stories are directed at children and are used to scare them into good behavior. The folklore includes both mischievous pranksters who leave gifts during the night and monsters who eat disobedient children.

The figures are depicted as living together as a family in a cave and include:

  • Gryla an ogress with an appetite for the flesh of mischievous children, whom she cooks in a large pot. Her husband Leppaluoi is lazy and mostly stays at home in their cave.
  • The Yule Cat a huge and vicious cat who lurks about the snowy countryside during Christmas time (Yule) and eats people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve.
  • The Yule Lads the sons of Gryla and Leppaluoi. They are a group of 13 mischievous pranksters who steal from or harass the population and all have descriptive names that convey their favorite way of harassing. They come to town one by one during the last 13 nights before Yule. They leave small gifts in shoes that children have placed on window sills, but if the child has been disobedient they instead leave a rotten potato in the shoe.

These Christmas-related folktales first appeared around the 17th century and displayed some variation based on region and age. In modern times these characters have taken on slightly more benevolent roles.

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Ronald Reagan Iceland
October 10, 1986
Prior to the Summit meeting with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev (October 10-11), President Reagan meets with President Vigdis Finnbagadottir in Reykjavik, Iceland.


A Nordic island country between the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between North America and Europe. It is linked culturally and politically with Europe, and is the region's most sparsely populated country. Its capital and largest city is Reykjavik, which is home to about 36% of the country's roughly 380,000 residents. The official language of the country is Icelandic.

Located on a rift between tectonic plates, Iceland's geologic activity includes geysers and frequent volcanic eruptions. The interior consists of a volcanic plateau characterized by sand and lava fields, mountains, and glaciers, and many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a latitude just south of the Arctic Circle. Its high latitude and marine influence keep summers chilly, and most of its islands have a polar climate.

According to the ancient manuscript Landnamabok, the settlement of Iceland began in 874 AD when the Norwegian chieftain Ingolfr Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island. In the following centuries, Norwegians, and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians, immigrated to Iceland, bringing with them thralls (i.e., slaves or serfs) of Gaelic origin.

The island was governed as an independent commonwealth under the native parliament, the Althing, one of the world's oldest functioning legislative assemblies. Following a period of civil strife, Iceland acceded to Norwegian rule in the 13th century. The establishment of the Kalmar Union in 1397 united the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Iceland thus followed Norway's integration into that union, coming under Danish rule after Sweden seceded from the union in 1523. The Danish kingdom forcefully introduced Lutheranism to Iceland in 1550.

Influenced by ideals of nationalism after the French Revolution, Iceland's struggle for independence took form and culminated in the Danish–Icelandic Act of Union in 1918, with the establishment of the Kingdom of Iceland, sharing through a personal union the incumbent monarch of Denmark. During the occupation of Denmark in World War II, Iceland voted overwhelmingly to become a republic in 1944, thus ending the remaining formal ties with Denmark. Although the Althing was suspended from 1799 to 1845, the island republic has nevertheless been credited with sustaining the world's oldest and longest-running parliament.

Until the 20th century, Iceland relied largely on subsistence fishing and agriculture. Industrialization of the fisheries and Marshall Plan aid following World War II brought prosperity, and Iceland became one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world. It became a part of the European Economic Area in 1994; this further diversified the economy into sectors such as finance, biotechnology, and manufacturing.

Iceland has a market economy with relatively low taxes, compared to other OECD countries, as well as the highest trade union membership in the world. It maintains a Nordic social welfare system that provides universal health care and tertiary education for its citizens. Iceland ranks highly in international comparisons of national performance, such as quality of life, education, protection of civil liberties, government transparency, and economic freedom.

Icelandic culture is founded upon the nation's Scandinavian heritage. Most Icelanders are descendants of Norse and Gaelic settlers. Icelandic, a North Germanic language, is descended from Old West Norse and is closely related to Faroese. The country's cultural heritage includes traditional Icelandic cuisine, Icelandic literature, and medieval sagas. Iceland has the smallest population of any NATO member and is the only one with no standing army, possessing only a lightly armed coast guard.

Iceland is the world's 18th-largest island, and Europe's second-largest island after Great Britain and before Ireland. The main island covers 101,826 km2 (39,315 sq mi), but the entire country is 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi) in size, of which 62.7% is tundra. Iceland contains about 30 minor islands. Lakes and glaciers cover 14.3% of its surface; only 23% is vegetated.

  • The climate of Iceland's coast is subarctic. The warm North Atlantic Current ensures generally higher annual temperatures than in most places of similar latitude in the world. The highest air temperature recorded was 86.9 F on 22 June 1939 at Teigarhorn on the southeastern coast. The lowest was−36.4 F on 22 January 1918 at Grimsstaoir and Moorudalur in the northeastern hinterland.
  • When the island was first settled, it was extensively forested, with around 30% of the land covered in trees.
  • The only native land mammal when humans arrived was the Arctic fox, which came to the island at the end of the ice age, walking over the frozen sea. On rare occasions, bats have been carried to the island with the winds, but they are not able to breed there. No native or free-living reptiles or amphibians are on the island.
  • Iceland has many geysers, including Geysir in Haukadalur valley, the oldest known geyser in the world, from which the English word is derived, and the famous Strokkur, which erupts every 8–10 minutes. After a phase of inactivity, Geysir started erupting again after a series of earthquakes in 2000. Geysir has since grown quieter and does not erupt often.
  • Surtsey, one of the youngest islands in the world, is part of Iceland. Named after Surtr, it rose above the ocean in a series of volcanic eruptions between 8 November 1963 and 5 June 1968. Only scientists researching the growth of new life are allowed to visit the island.
  • Iceland is a representative democracy and a parliamentary republic. The modern parliament, Alþingi (English: Althing), was founded in 1845 as an advisory body to the Danish monarch. It was widely seen as a re-establishment of the assembly founded in 930 in the Commonwealth period and temporarily suspended from 1799 to 1845. Consequently, "it is arguably the world's oldest parliamentary democracy." It has 63 members, elected for a maximum period of four years.
  • Iceland was the first country in the world to have a political party formed and led entirely by women. Vigdis Finnbogadottir assumed Iceland's presidency on 1 August 1980, making her the first elected female head of state in the world.
  • According to the 2011 Global Peace Index, Iceland is the most peaceful country in the world, due to its lack of armed forces, low crime rate and high level of socio-political stability. Iceland is listed in Guinness World Records as the "country ranked most at peace" and the "lowest military spending per capita".
  • In 2007, Iceland was the seventh-most productive country in the world per capita (US$54,858), and the fifth-most productive by GDP at purchasing power parity ($40,112). About 85 percent of the total primary energy supply in Iceland is derived from domestically produced renewable energy sources. Use of abundant hydroelectric and geothermal power has made Iceland the world's largest electricity producer per capita.
  • Until the 20th century, Iceland was a fairly poor country. It is now one of the most developed countries in the world. Strong economic growth led Iceland to be ranked third in the United Nations' Human Development Index report for 2021/2022. According to the Economist Intelligence Index of 2011, Iceland had the second-highest quality of life in the world. Based on the Gini coefficient, Iceland also has one of the lowest rates of income inequality in the world, and when adjusted for inequality, its HDI ranking is sixth.
  • Icelanders are among the world's healthiest people, with 81% reporting they are in good health, according to an OECD survey.
  • Christianity: 78.78%
  • Icelandic culture has its roots in North Germanic traditions. Icelandic literature is popular, in particular the sagas and eddas that were written during the High and Late Middle Ages. Centuries of isolation have helped to insulate the country's Nordic culture from external influence; a prominent example is the preservation of the Icelandic language, which remains the closest to Old Norse of all modern Nordic languages.
  • Much of Iceland's cuisine is based on fish, lamb, and dairy products, with little to no use of herbs or spices. Due to the island's climate, fruits and vegetables are not generally a component of traditional dishes, although the use of greenhouses has made them more common in contemporary food. Breakfast usually consists of pancakes, cereal, fruit, and coffee, while lunch may take the form of a smorgasbord. The main meal of the day for most Icelanders is dinner, which usually involves fish or lamb as the main course.
  • Coffee is a popular beverage in Iceland, with the country being third placed by per capita consumption worldwide in 2016, and is drunk at breakfast, after meals, and with a light snack in mid-afternoon. Coca-Cola is also widely consumed, to the extent that the country is said to have one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world.
  • The main traditional sport in Iceland is Glima, a form of wrestling thought to have originated in medieval times. Popular sports include football, track and field, handball and basketball. Handball is often referred to as the national sport. Iceland has excellent conditions for skiing, fishing, snowboarding, ice climbing and rock climbing, although mountain climbing and hiking are preferred by the general public.

EtymologyNamed by Norsemen
The Sagas of Icelanders say that a Norwegian named Naddodd (or Naddador) was the first Norseman to reach Iceland, and in the ninth century, he named it Snaeland or "snow land" because it was snowing. Following Naddodd, the Swede Garoar Svavarsson arrived, and so the island was then called Garoarsholmur which means "Garoar's Isle".

Then came a Viking named Floki Vilgeroarson; his daughter drowned en route, then his livestock starved to death. The sagas say that the rather despondent Floki climbed a mountain and saw a fjord (Arnarfjorour) full of icebergs, which led him to give the island its new and present name. The notion that Iceland's Viking settlers chose that name to discourage the settlement of their verdant isle is a myth.

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