Icelanders celebrate Yule throughout December, especially those who have
children. In many homes there is a Yule calendar, with little gifts for
the children for every day from December 1st to Christmas Eve. Other
children receive "shoe gifts"
from the Yule lads for the last 13
nights before Yule.
lights and Advent candles
Many Icelanders use Advent lights to count down the weeks
until Yule. Four candles are stuck in a wreath, and lit on the four
Sundays before Christmas. The first Sunday one candle is lit, allowed to
burn for a short while, and then put out. The next Sunday two candles are
lit, and so on until Christmas Eve, when all the candles are lit and
allowed to burn down. Here is an explanation of the Advent lights and
their significance: http://www.jolahusid.com/engl/advent.htm
Icelanders also put Advent
lights in their windows. These are electric lights set in a holder
shaped like an inverted V, with candle shaped bulb holders with 7 lights.
Walk past a retirement home in December, and you can expect to see Advent
lights in every window.
Christmas holidays start
on Christmas Eve (Ađfangadagur, literally "the day of
stocking up"). Most people stop working at noon, others between
one and three p.m. At six 'o'clock the festivities start. Many people
attend a church service, others sit at home and listen to a service on
the radio. The gifts are opened in the evening of Christmas Eve.
and Boxing Day are legal holidays, and people will use this time for
being together and visiting with family and friends.
and ten on Christmas Eve, the Icelandic TV-stations stop broadcasting,
a tradition that goes back to the early days of Icelandic television.
over just because Christmas Day and Boxing Day have passed. Yule is thirteen days long, and doesn't end until January
6th (12th Night). Instead of the usual New Year's Eve bonfires, some
communities have a Last Day of Yule bonfire and fireworks show. (If
weather prevents a New Year's Eve bonfire, it is usually held on
Icelandic Christmas food
will use any occasion to eat and drink and celebrate. This is very
apparent when Christmas starts approaching. We have adopted several
Christmas or pre-Christmas traditions from other nations, especially ones
that involve food and drink.
= Christmas Buffet. Christmas-time in Iceland is very much a boon for
restaurants and caterers. The buffets have become so popular that some
restaurants start taking orders months in advance, and the Xmas buffet
season is now staring as early as mid-November. It isn't uncommon for
a person to attend three buffets before Christmas: one with the people
from work, one with friends, and one with family. This buffet
tradition is probably derived from the Scandinavian Julefrokost.
This is something people mostly do at work. Glögg is a
Scandinavian term for hot spiced wine, and in Scandinavia and Germany
it is a traditional warming winter drink. (You will find a recipe for
it on the Beverages page). For some, this is unfortunately a wonderful
excuse for over-drinking. The Jólaglögg is something that happens
shortly before Christmas, sometimes on the last workday before the
Xmas holidays. Glögg can be a warming, refreshing drink, made with
red wine and spices, or it can be a potent, extremely intoxicating
brew, equal parts wine and vodka. Unfortunately, the latter version is
is the feast day of Iceland's patron saint, Ţorlákur helgi (Thorlak
the holy). I have already written a short essay about this feast. Read
There are many traditions connected with the new
year in Iceland. It is an old belief that animals are able to speak like
humans on New Year's Night, and that elves and spirits move house.
Icelanders celebrate the coming of the new year with bonfires and
fireworks. Unlike many other countries, where the use of fireworks is
restricted, everyone in Iceland has access to firecrackers and rockets -
and it shows!
Just as the
family have recovered from the rich and heavy Christmas food, 'round comes
New Year's Eve, and another delicious meal. In my family, it is usually
smoked rack of pork, served with potatoes, pineapple, pickled red cabbage,
peas & carrots, brussels sprouts, red vine sauce and redcurant jelly.
After dinner, we go to the bonfire. Icelanders like to say 'goodbye' to
the old year and 'welcome' to the new year with a bonfire. In my parents' hometown, the bonfire is safely situated in an old
gravel mine a couple of kilometers out of town. Around 8'o'clock, everyone
gathers at a convenient spot outside town and light their torches and
march up to the gravel mine to light the bonfire.
The bonfires used to me made out of any rubbish the organizers
could get their hands on: old building timber, old tires, paper
boxes, used furniture, old boats, and on one occasion a bunch of old tool shacks. The fire was helped along with a liberal application of
motor oil. These days, EC regulations have banned many of the old
ingredients, so now we mostly burn wood and paper, and use some gasoline
to help light the fire.
As a result, the fires have gotten smaller, but also much more
After attending the bonfire, we go home and watch the "Áramótaskaup".
This is a humorous TV revue that pokes fun at the events of the past
year. At midnight, we go outside and shoot rockets and firecrackers and
enjoy watching them explode.
We Icelanders often enjoy an Easter holiday that lasts longer than Christmas, since Maundy Thursday (Skírdagur), Long
Friday (Föstudagurinn Langi), Easter Sunday (Páskadagur ) and the following Monday
(Annar í Páskum) are all holidays, giving most people a five
day holiday and students even longer.
There are not many Icelandic food traditions connected with Easter. In
olden times when good, fresh food was scarce, it was traditional to serve some
kind of porridge on Easter Sunday, usually made from barley. In concession
to the holiness of Easter, the porridge would be unusually thick and rich,
not like the gruel that was usually served. In the 18th and 19th centuries
porridge would be served on Maundy Thursday as a special treat. This
porridge would sometimes be made with rice,
which was considered the height of luxury.
It may not look like much, to serve porridge on such a
holy day as Easter Sunday, but before the 20th century cereals were a
luxury to all but the richest Icelanders. Barley was the most commonly
used cereal, and was grown in some places in the south until the 16th
century. Wheat flour, oats and rye were sometimes available as well. Since
cereals were such a luxury, they were reserved for special occasions, like
Christmas and Easter, when they would be used to make bread (flat
rye bread and leaf
bread) and porridge. Gruel would be served as an everyday food,
usually made with Iceland Moss, with perhaps a handful of barley
thrown in for a little taste.
At Easter it would be time to start eating meat
again after Lent, and so meat, especially hangikjöt, would be
These days, the only real Easter food tradition is that of
eating Easter eggs. About 3 weeks to a month before Easter, chocolate eggs
of all sizes begin to appear in supermarkets, making it very difficult for
parents to take their children along when they go shopping!
These delicious eggs are filled with candy and
there is also a strip of paper with a proverb or saying, somewhat like the
ones you find in fortune cookies. When my brother and I were children, our parents used to
wake us up on the morning of Easter Sunday and give us our Easter eggs. It
was very difficult not to have a taste before breakfast, and the eggs
would usually be finished before the day was over. We used to have a lot
of fun breaking the eggs, attacking them with a hammer or dropping them on
the floor to watch them shatter.
Easter egg hunts are not practiced in Iceland, due to
the fact that the ground is often covered with snow at Easter-time, and it
is usually too cold.
Our traditional family Easter meal consists of
pork, usually smoked rack, cooked in red wine and then oven glazed with a sauce
made from brown sugar, mustard and ketchup. Served with pineapple rings,
brussels sprouts, peas and baby carrots, redcurrant jelly, fresh salad and
red-wine sauce. Dessert is often home-made ice-cream
or pineapple fromage (I'll add the recipe later).
- Sun Coffee
Because of Iceland's northerly location, the sun rises very
low over the horizon during the winter. The country has many deep, narrow
fjords and valleys where the sun does not rise above the mountains for
several weeks during the darkest winter days. When the sun finally does
show itself for a few minutes, it is a cause for celebration for the
inhabitants of those dark valleys and fjords.
These days, the inhabitants of some towns and villages
will get together in the gathering hall to celebrate the arrival of
sunshine. Others will celebrate individually in their own homes. There is
no specific sunshine day, since the sun will appear on different days in
different locations. And there should be no cheating: even if you know
that the sun has risen above the mountains, there is no celebrating until
the weather actually allows it to be seen! This tradition is widespread in
Iceland, especially in the east and west fjords, but also in some fjords
and valleys in the north.
The Sun Coffee is traditionally served with
pancakes, cream cake and any other cake you want! (This includes just
about anything from the Cakes, pancakes and
cookies page). Many will make caraway
coffee for this occasion.
Sunshine day is also a cause for celebration and remembrance
among those who have moved away from the fjords and valleys,
usually to Reykjavík. Many of these people have formed clubs that are
open to anyone coming from the "old place". They will pick a day
close to the time when they know the sun will appear in the old place. A
number of volunteers will each bring one cake, or a pile of pancakes or a
plate of flat bread with hangikjöt, and they will have a feast with the
cakes and drink freshly brewed sun coffee. Sometimes there will be
I don't know when this sunny tradition started,
but it is clearly a modern version of the ancient midwinter festivals,
like Yule and Ţorrablót. People look up to the
skies and thank
God that the sun is back and another winter will soon draw to an end.
Ţorlákur was a 12th century Icelandic bishop, who was revered as
the patron saint of Iceland after his death in 1193. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II in
1985, which many people find funny as Catholics are a small minority
in the mostly Lutherian country. That, however, doesn't stop us
from celebrating Ţorláksmessa.
are two mass days dedicated to Ţorlákur, Ţorláksmessa in Summer,
July 20th, and Ţorláksmessa in Winter, December 23rd. The first
marks the date his bones were removed from the coffin and put in a
shrine, and the second marks the date of his death.
In past centuries fresh fish was a
common food on Ţorláksmessa in Iceland. The origins of the
tradition of eating
fish on Ţorláksmessa is that this is the last day of the Catholic
Christmas fast, and of course people weren't expected to eat meat on
this day. The tradition continued after the country converted
to Lutheranism, because this was a busy day, and food
had to be quick and simple. (No work was done on Christmas Day and
Boxing Day, so everything had to be ready by Christmas Eve.)
my parent's home and many others, the smell of hangikjöt cooking on
Ţorláksmessa is one of the long-awaited signs that Christmas is
coming. But it is cured skate that is the dish of the day.
The tradition of eating this peculiar and smelly food (it has a strong odour
of ammonia) arose in the West Fjords. The best time for catching skate is in
the late autumn, and the pickling and putrefying process takes a
while to complete, so it would be ready and available around
Christmas time. Therefore it was perfectly normal that skate would
be served on Ţorláksmessa. This tradition has slowly spread all over the country, and now there
are many people who look as much forward to eating skate on Ţorláksmessa
as they do to eating hangikjöt, ptarmigan,
turkey, ham or
steak on Christmas
the village where I grew up, the crews of the trawlers and boats
belonging to the local fishing company have for the past several
years invited the population of the village to a skate lunch in the
community hall, every December 23rd. Living across the street
from the community hall means that if the wind is favourable, my
parents will know exactly when the fish starts cooking!
I have already indicated, cured skate is an odiferous food, but it doesn't
taste anything like it smells. The reason for this putrefying
business is that in fresh skate (much like in shark), there are
that can be harmful when the fish is eaten fresh. All I can say is
that the person who discovered this must have been pretty desperate
to get something to eat, because the smell is really horrible. I
once went to the skate lunch with a nose so stuffed that I could
neither smell nor taste anything, but when I was finished eating, my
cold had disappeared. Powerful stuff!
skate lunch, two kinds of skate are served, one kind is salted and
only slightly putrefied, the
other salted and very putrefied. This is served in chunks, with boiled
potatoes and a choice of two kinds of mör, the ordinary kind
(melted sheep's tallow with burned bits of membrane - tastes better
than it sounds), and hnođmör (the same, just kneaded and allowed
to go stale before eating).
Ţorri is one of the
old Icelandic months. It always begins on a Friday, between the 19th and
the 25th of January, and ends on a Saturday between the 18th and 24th of
February. The first day of Ţorri is called Bóndadagur or
"Husband's Day/Farmer's Day", and is dedicated to men
(formerly only farmers). In my family
(and many others) , the women bring the men breakfast in bed on this day
- just as the men will do on Konudagur - Woman's Day (if they know what's good for
them). Many women will give their husbands flowers as well. This is a
fairly new custom, introduced by flower shops in order to sell more roses.
(Now they are trying import Valentine's Day for the same reason).
The tradition of a Ţorri feast is an ancient one. It has its roots
in old midwinter feasts, Ţorrablót, which the advent of
Christianity could not quite abolish, although the way in which it is
celebrated has changed. This month falls on the
coldest time of the winter, and therefore it is no surprise that Ţorri
has become a personification of King Winter. He is usually portrayed as
an old man, tall and grizzled, who is as cruel to those who disrespect
him as he is gentle to those who show him respect. Some have suggested
that the month is named after the legendary king who united Norway into
one country. Others think it is derived from the name of the thunder-god Ţór
(Thor), and that this was his feast during the pre-Christian era in
Iceland. The story of this old feast and the changes it has gone through
is both long and fascinating, and will not be told here.
Whatever the origin of the feast of Ţorri, it is today a standard
part of the Icelandic social calendar, and has even been exported to
many countries which have ex-pat Icelandic populations (often to
the utter dismay of foreign friends and spouses). The eating habits of
the Icelandic nation have changed a lot in the last hundred years or so,
and it is only during Ţorri that many people will eat the old-fashioned
food. As this feast takes place in the middle of winter, it is no
surprise that most of the food served at the feasts is preserved in some
way: by pickling in whey, salting, smoking, drying or putrefying.
A typical Ţorrablót takes place at any time during Ţorri. The
season for it now extends into the following month, Góa, but the feast
is then usually dubbed Góugleđi. It is advisable to hold it on a
Friday or Saturday night, to give the participants time to recover
from the effects of overeating and heavy drinking that goes with a good
Ţorrablót. The form the feast takes is similar everywhere, the
indispensable ingredients being merrymaking and lots of food.
Additional ingredients are staged entertainment (often a cabaret or
dancing and lots of alcohol.
The traditional method of serving the food in deep wooden trays is
these days usually only extended as far as the buffet, ordinary
plates taking their place at the table, and cutlery taking the place of
the traditional sharp knife and the diner's bare hands.
Menu for Ţorrablót
comments courtesy of your host.
Shark, served in small cubes. It is prepared by burying it for
several weeks, and then hanging it up and allowing it to dry. The semi-opaque
flesh of the belly is called glerhákarl (glassy
shark), and is not nearly as popular as the skyrhákarl, which is
flesh from the body of the fish.Skyrhákarl draws it's name
from its resemblance in appearance to the Icelandic curds called skyr. The
tough glerhákarl is recommended for
beginners, as the soft skyrhákarl has been known to cause an
involuntary gagging reaction due to its texture. Wash down with a shot
of cold Brennivín (caraway schnapps). Believe it or not, this is
actually good for the digestion - especially before eating the heavy Ţorri
food. To learn how to cure shark, click
Harđfiskur: Dried fish, usually haddock, cod or catfish,
beaten to soften it. Delicious with or without butter. In old times Harđfiskur
was eaten like bread in those homes that could only afford flour for
baking on special occasions. It is still Iceland's favourite snack, and
a popular travel food. (Chances are, if you meet an Icelander and he
has a funny smell about him, it will be because of the harđfiskur
tucked away in his luggage.)
Modern Entrées: At many Ţorri feasts there is now offered a
wide variety of entrées, usually food that can be found in a typical
Scandinavian Julefrokost (Christmas buffet): marinated
herring (both plain and in several different kinds of sauce),
smoked salmon and gravlax.
This is (in my opinion) mainly to satisfy the tastes of guests who wish
to take part in the celebrations, but don't like the taste of shark and
This is where the menu begins to get really interesting. Almost
everything you find on a typical Ţorri buffet is made from lamb or
mutton, with a few exceptions. The food can be separated into two
categories: sour and non-sour. The sour food has been pickled in extra
strong skyrmysa (whey) for several weeks. The trick is to get it
sour enough to tell where it's been, but not so sour that you can't tell
what it is. Most of the sour food is also served non-sour. In the
old days, sour milk was sometimes uses instead of mysa.
Hrútspungar or pressed sheep's testicles.
Has little taste of it's own, and a texture reminiscent of
pressed cod roe.
Hvalspik or whale blubber. This became
hard to find after the parliament passed a law forbidding
whaling several years ago. It has made a small comeback recently, due
to the Norwegians lifting their whaling ban and selling the
blubber to Iceland. Fresh whale blubber is stringy and tough,
but pickling it makes it soft and more easily digestible.
Lundabaggar - This is a tough one to
explain - it is made from secondary meats, like colons and other
such stuff, rolled up, boiled, pickled and sliced. Usually very
Bringukollar - breast meat. These are cuts
of really fat meat on the bone, which have been boiled before
pickling. As the name suggests, these pieces come from the
breast of the animal.
Selshreifar - seal's flippers. These are
rare, except at some family feasts where the participants have
hunted the seals themselves.
Hvalllíki or fake whale blubber. This was
invented after the whaling ban. It is made from fish, and has a
colour and texture reminiscent of the real thing, but an
entirely different taste. Has become a Ţorri staple for many,
and is by some preferred over the real thing. (Seems to be more
common in the Reykjavík area than in other parts of the
Sour and non-sour:
Slátur. Of this there are two types: Lifrarpylsa
sausage and Blóđmör or blood sausage, cooked
before pickling. Both are quite good when fresh, but take on
wholly different taste when pickled, which people either love or
loathe (I happen to like it). Both contain rye meal, which
contributes to the souring process and creates a special kind of
taste that's hard to describe. Both are quite firm when fresh,
but will take on a crumbly texture after extended pickling.
These can actually be pickled in water, as the rye meal causes a
souring action similar to whey.
Sviđasulta - sheep's head jam. This is
quite good when pickled, and delicious fresh. It is made by
cutting up the meat from cooked sheep's heads (sviđ), pressing into
moulds and cooling. The cooking liquid turns into jelly when
cold, and keeps the whole thing together. For a further
explanation of sviđ, see below.
Svínasulta, or spiced pigs' head jam. A
recent addition to the Ţorri table, probably borrowed from the
Danish. Tastes much better fresh than pickled.
Lappir and/or Fótasulta - sheep's legs
and sheep's leg jam. This is a rare sight, both due to the
effort it takes to produce the jam, and the fact that the
slaughterhouses are required to throw the legs
away. Therefore only available where people do their own
*The must have changed the regulations - you can now get legs
at my local supermarket.
Hangikjöt - Literally "hung
meat". This usually refers to smoked lamb or mutton,
although smoked horse-meat is also called hangikjöt.
This is one of those courses that are eaten outside the Ţorri
season as well, and is really delicious. Many families (mine
included) serve hangikjöt for Christmas.
Magálar - heavily smoked sheep's bellies.
Eaten like hangikjöt.
Sviđ - singed sheep's heads. The name
refers to the tradition of burning away all the hair from the
head before cooking. This gives the meat a smoky flavour. The
heads are cut in half lengthwise and the brains removed before
cooking. Like hangikjöt, this is also quite a popular dish
outside the Ţorri season.
bread. Dark (almost black) "thunder-bread" served
with butter. Top with pickled herring for an entrée, eat on the
side with the main courses.
Brennivín - caraway schnapps, locally
known as Svartidauđi - "Black Death". These
days many people will rather drink vodka and/or whisky - which
they claim taste better.
Mysa - whey. Yes, it can also be drunk.
Before the arrival of carbonated beverages, this was the
refreshment of choice. Unfortunately, it is not much used as a
The taste? It is reminiscent of dry white wine,
and mysa can actually be used instead of white wine in cooking,
without anyone noticing the difference.
Bjór - beer, and it's relatives, Malt
(brown ale) and Lageröl (pale ale). During the beer-less
years (several decades), the only ale allowed in Iceland was the
low-alcohol Malt and Lageröl. Since we have been
allowed to drink beer again, it has become "the drink"
for many at Ţorrablót feasts. These days you can even buy
special Ţorri beer.
Soft drinks - for those who don't like ale or
Stuff that is sometimes served, but shouldn't be:
Many people, especially young people, don't like
the Ţorri food, but like to participate in the Ţorrablót. In
order to accommodate these (in my opinion) unfortunate people, non-Ţorri food
is sometimes served (especially at restaurants). Therefore we
Ţorri chicken - grilled Ţorri steak - Ţorri pizza, and
other such stuff. This is not really Ţorri food, of course, and
in my opinion, people who come to Ţorrablót to eat this stuff
would be better off going out to dinner and seeing a show - they
are missing out on the special feel of the Ţorrablót.
Ţorri update 2001:
There is a recently established League Against Spoiled Food
(Samtök gegn skemmdum mat) which dedicates itself to
fighting against the eating of whey-pickled food, skate and
skark. In my opionon, they should count themselves lucky to have
been born in the 20th century, when they at least have a choice
as to what they eat, a luxury our ancestors didn't have. The
old-fashioned" food of today is much healthier than the
same kind of food used to be. Here I am not just referring to
the traditional Ţorri food, but also for example to sour and
mouldy butter, rotting meat and bread with lots of extra
proteins due to maggots and insects in the flour. People had no
choice but to eat this kind of food, or else starve.