Tales from Iceland #2: Christmas Traditions

Happy (or Merry) Christmas!  Sharing a few insights I learned about how the “island of fire and ice” celebrates Christmas …

Yule Lads

Instead of one Santa Claus, Icelanders have 13 Yule Lads. According to local lore, they live in the highlands and come down from the mountains, one each night for the 13 days prior to Christmas. In this tradition, children place their best shoe on their windowsill before going to bed and the next day find a little gift inside it from a Yule Lad. If the child has been misbehaving or is late to bed, there might be a raw potato left instead.

Although the Yule Lad tradition has deep historical roots, it’s evolved. When touring Dimmuborgir, we saw the encampment where legends claim that the Yule Lads hung out. Walking into the molten-lava, box canyon, you can imagine how they were sheltered from the wind and held a command position.

Our tour guide, Jon, shared that the Yule Lads have a storied history. Rather than jolly and benevolent, he claims that they were a clan of drunks, ruffians, and outlaws who raided homes in the winter. They stole food, blankets, and warm clothing. Jon felt that the tourist site romanticizes the dark side of the Yule Lads into a charming tale for children and families.

If Dimmuborgir truly was a haven for homeless, disposed men, they survived in brutally harsh winter conditions.

Lingering Curiosity:  Are the Yule Lads a carry-over from Icelanders’ roots in paganism or a full-on embrace of Santa Claus?

Tourist Tip: The hiking trails in the Dimmuborgir Lava Labyrinth would be worth spending 30-45 minutes exploring. We only saw a fraction of the space in our brief tour. But it was amazing.

Everyone Gets a Book for Christmas

According to Alda Sigmundsdottir, author of the Little Book of the Icelanders, after everyone has eaten dinner and opened their gifts, people retire to spend the rest of the evening reading. From her interview with Scott Simon on Weekend Edition, I learned some intriguing details about Icelandic culture that resonates with the Icelandic fiction I’ve read. Characters often mention that they gave or received a specific book on Christmas—even if that’s all they exchanged.

The tradition started during the WWII. First Britain, and later the US, forces set up strategic operations in Iceland. For the first time in many generations, Icelanders experienced economic growth with more jobs and increased demand for goods and services. Locals sought ways to spend their new-found wealth, but few goods were available due to war-time restrictions. Printing was not restricted, so Icelanders indulged in printing and buying books. According to Alda Sigmundsdottir, the tradition stuck.

Icelandic Noir Reveals the Culture and History

During our travels through Iceland, we learned that they have compulsory education from age 6-16. At age 10, they learn English (most citizens are bi-lingual and many are multi-lingual). At age 16, children/citizens choose the next chapter of their education. If they want go into the trades, Iceland supports them to secure the essential credentials. Those who want to pursue a professional or academic path enter the next level of courses and exams (4 years) to qualify for higher education. If they succeed, the government funds their education.

A small country, Iceland needs everyone to succeed and be the best that they can be. Many in the country work more than one job. Even their prime minister shadows as a crime fiction writer!

With a population of ~390,000, Iceland has more writers per head than any country on earth. In October 2013, Iceland received the Guinness World Records award for more published writers per capita than any country around the world.

Lingering Curiosity: Does this book-reading tradition spawn their prolific and talented Icelandic novelists?

Tourist Tip:  Before visiting Iceland, read a few Icelandic Noir novels to get a feel for the culture, history, and mystic of the island. Start with Reykjavik, by Ragnar Jonasson and Katrin Jakobsdottir (who is the current Prime Minister of Iceland). They depict historic and cultural moments in a compelling mystery drama. And listen to their interview on the Criminal Podcast where host, Phoebe Judge, explores why a peaceful society produces so many crime fiction writers.

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