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Essential Guide to Christmas in Iceland

What to see and do in Iceland during winter festivities

|November 13, 2023
Konstancija is a writer who enjoys long walks and hikes in nature, "hunts" for second-hand goods, and is a frequent guest in public libraries where she loves to read and roam around stacks of books.

Planning on going to Iceland during winter festivities? Or just curious to find out how Icelanders celebrate their Christmas? Keep on reading to get your answers on everything there is to know about Iceland and its “Jól.”

It’s probably safe to say that Iceland is one of the countries known for celebrating the winter holidays, and why many visit right before Christmas time to get into the festive spirit. To prepare yourself better, read about Icelandic Christmas, its traditions, things that are specific to Icelandic culture, and what you can do and try out during this holiday season.


What important celebrations are without traditions? What kind of deep-routed Christmas traditions in Iceland might you expect? Prepare yourself for some interesting and delightful customs that Icelanders follow every year: from 13 Santa Clauses to what kind of present you can expect to find under a Christmas tree.

13 Yule Lads on a snowy mountain

Yule Lads

While many people in the world are waiting for Santa Claus to visit their homes and leave some presents, the sign of them being good all year long, under the tree, Icelanders have 13 Yule Lads who serve as an equivalent of Santa—maybe except for that they’re not as friendly as Santa Claus and rather wicked. 

These 13 distinct characters come one by one every night up until Christmas to give presents for good kids and cause trouble, also not forgetting naughty kids and leaving them a rotting potato. But what they should really be scared of, according to Icelandic tales, is the Yule Lads’ mother, Grýla. She’s the one who ought to get kids who misbehave and eat them. 

Another remarkable character in this folklore tale is the Christmas cat that lives with Yule Lads and Grýla. What is its role, you might wonder? Christmas cat in Iceland has a specific goal to catch anyone who didn’t receive a piece of new clothing before Christmas. Not the fashion police you’d usually expect!

 Goat Christmas decoration in the evening

Christmas dates

What might surprise you about Christmas time in Iceland is its dates. The festive season here starts with the appearance of the first Yule Lad, who comes on the night of the 12th of December. For this reason, the Christmas season here lasts 26 days. So, when is Christmas in Iceland? While its official date is the 25th of December, Icelanders put more effort into celebrating its eve with delicious dinner, going to the mass, hot chocolate, and gift exchange.

Speaking about gifts, one of the fun and unique places to buy presents for your loved ones is Christmas Markets. Reykjavik Christmas Markets start their work at the end of November and continue up until Christmas.

Happy senior couple reading a book sitting at home

Christmas eve traditions

Christmas Day in Iceland is much more relaxing compared to Christmas Eve. On the day of 24th of December, people spent their time preparing for the evening, either prepping in the kitchen or wrapping final gifts. Christmas Eve in Iceland means it's time to sit down for dinner, including various traditional Icelandic Christmas foods. This is a great opportunity to try smoked lamb with sauce, fermented skate, leaf bread, and many more treats. 

After dinner, it's time for presents. If you're an avid book reader, you'll love the Icelandic tradition called "Jólabókaflóð" or "Icelandic Christmas book flood," during which people gift each other books. Once gift giving is done, Icelanders usually spend the rest of the evening drinking a hot beverage, reading their new book, and relaxing surrounded by other family members. 

One more tradition that Icelanders follow on Christmas Eve is going to the mass that takes place at 18:00 and 23:30 (also called midnight mass).

Christmas tree in a night sky


What might seem surprising during the Christmas period in Iceland is its weather or, precisely, its temperatures. It’s the land of ice and snow and is recognized for its extreme weather. While you might expect snowy -20 °C, the temperature here varies from -2 °C to 4°C. So, it’s not that freakishly cold. However, it is hard to stand Icelandic winter because of its wind, rain, and snow. But this only makes the whole Christmas experience more authentic and more memorable.


Traveling in Iceland during festivities not only allows you to see how people here are celebrating but also allows you to try out some fun and engaging activities. Check out what are some of the best things to do while you’re soaking up the Christmas spirit in Iceland.

People exploring the glacier

Go on a Christmas walking tour

One of the greatest ways to get to know the city is by exploring it on foot. What is even greater than that is doing it during Christmas time. Why? Because you get to learn some of Iceland’s Christmas traditions people follow every year and, of course, visit the city’s Christmas market that’s full of authentic and beautiful souvenirs.

Chase the Northern Lights

Iceland is surely well-known for its mesmerizing Northern Lights. Wintertime is perfect for going on a chase of the Aurora Borealis as this is when they most commonly appear and are the brightest. These lights definitely add some charm to the whole Christmas magic, especially when you’re surrounded by beautiful Icelandic nature with a cup of hot chocolate, looking at one of the most incredible “tricks” of the earth.

Hike on a glacier

If you’re more of an adventurous type of person and you really feel like exploring the ins and outs of Iceland, why not go on a glacier hike? It can be quite an easy but unforgettable walk during which you’ll learn all about glaciers, how they’re formed, how they change, and look at their beautiful ice formations.

Explore an ice cave

For those who are extremely fascinated by glaciers, don’t miss out on the opportunity to go ice caving. Inside the cave, you’ll be met with its out-of-this-world beauty and always-changing view. Find yourself in a true kingdom of ice with clear blue walls or with some black traces of a formerly erupted volcano. Wander in its long corridors or see its tiny constructions. With ice caving, you never know what’s there to surprise you.

Hop on a snowmobile

In case you’re looking for something new and extremely adventurous in Iceland, hop on a snowmobile and experience the thrill of being surrounded by a dramatic landscape. Snowmobiling is among many enjoyable things to do in Iceland that make your heart go faster and create memories that will last forever.

Two young men are posing against shining northern lights sky


It’s easy to see that Christmas in Iceland is quite special with its old and amusing traditions. But what are some other interesting facts about Icelandic Christmas that make it so unique? 

  • Icelanders celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December, which is considered Christmas Eve for many. 

  • Christmas in Iceland lasts 26 days because of the 13 Yule Lads. One of them makes their appearance on the 12th of December while the last one leaves on the 6th of January. 

  • December is the darkest month in Iceland, with only 5 hours of daylight. Nevertheless, it’s not that bad with all the festive lights out here. It’s also a perfect time to go on a hunt for Northern Lights. 

  • During the festive period, Icelanders remember their loved ones who already left this world by decorating their graveyards with colorful lights and candles.

  • If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, Iceland is a place to go, as December is the month when it snows heavily in the country. The snowfall during winter here can reach up to 40 centimeters.

Every year, we eagerly wait for Christmas, for this festive atmosphere, for its bright and warm lights. And it seems that Iceland is no exception. Whether you’re looking for ideas on how to make your celebration even more festive, or you’re planning a trip to Iceland during this time, this is the perfect time to get to know about the mischievous Yule Lads, try out Icelandic dishes and sweets, or buy your dear ones a book. Can you feel the Christmas spirit already?

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