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MY ICELAND: The Advent

Today is the first day of the Advent* here in Iceland, meaning we have now entered the season of Kitty and the Yule Lads. This is definitely one of the most magical times of year here, fully qualified to rival the season of the midnight sun.

It’s the time when coloured lights decorate just about every window, and practically every other tree is wrapped in them. There are concerts everywhere, almost everyone goes to at least one Christmas buffet [usually with their workplace], and families uphold their Yule traditions, be it making laufabrauð, or baking ginger snaps, or chopping their own Christmas tree, or making their own cards, or whatever.

It’s also the season of that most smelly of Yule traditions: putrid skate day. I’llsaynomore.

Today is the day when the lights on the so-called Oslo Christmas tree are lit down on Austurvöllur square, replete with Yule Lad appearances  [and usually Grýla, too] and other festivities. The city of Oslo has given Reykjavík a tree for the past, oh, several decades now, every year in December, and taking your kids out to see the lights lit has become an Icelandic tradition. [I read somewhere the other day that clearly the Norwegians don’t hold a grudge since last year that tree ended up on a bonfire during the Kitchenware revolution – although by then it had more already served its purpose.]

At any rate, the weather has totally cooperated – it started snowing two days ago and has continued … right now the ground is all white and the coloured lights are magical in the [plentiful] winter darkness. We got our Advent lights out just now and have dutifully placed them in the window; these will be followed up by lighted stars in the next few days. It’s cold, though: -1°C [30F] with a fair amount of wind, so I expect we’ll be beholding those lights more or less from indoors.

Incidentally, for anyone curious about our Yule traditions, I’ve written extensively about them during the months of December over the last five years, so feel free to browse the Archives.

* For anyone who doesn’t know, the Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and marks the start of the official Christmas season for the Nordic countries, at least.



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • BRADSTREET November 29, 2009, 4:02 pm

    This sounds absolutely wonderful. As our Christmas celebrations in Britain become more anaemic and meaningless every year, it would be wonderful to experience a traditional Icelandic Christmas (although I suspect that I’d give the putrid skate a miss!)
    -Sigh- Perhaps one day…
    The Xmas Lights were turned on in a Friday Night ceremony. Very nice, but the Council decided that they also needed to let off loads of fireworks. As pounds and pounds of local ratepayers money vanished in smoke, noise and brightly coloured lights, I ruminated on how it’s so much easier to spend money when it isn’t actually your own.
    The battle of the Christmas decorations goes on. Last year, one of the houses nearby had animatronic dancing snowmen, an illuminated Santa descending on a rope ladder from a helicopter (don’t ask!), lights that flash on and off in sequence, and a loudspeaker system that plays seasonal tunes in an endless loop. Where do they get the money from???

  • James November 29, 2009, 5:39 pm

    The Internet is great for text, photos and videos. A pity it can’t distribute the smell of putrid skate; then again, maybe that’s a good thing…

  • Petri November 29, 2009, 8:11 pm

    Is this putrid skate something similar to the rotten shark Iceland is known for.. And what is it with the fascination about smelly fish? 🙂

  • Sólveig November 29, 2009, 8:49 pm

    As I look out the window and see daylight, green leaves and rain… I don’t feel very festive and it’s hard to imagine christmas lights and snow. But, home in two weeks, hopefully the season spirits will hit me full force then!

  • sigga November 29, 2009, 10:16 pm

    It really is amazing… I look around my darkened room, no ceiling lights on – but in every corner and outside my window there are magic little lights that so make you feel good inside (well me at least and those others that are jólabörn) For some reason my town isn´t putting on the lights on our christmas tree until next weekend… but they turned the street christmas lights on a few days early instead. Very strange, but we have a cross on the hill above town near the cemetery and it’s lights were lit on Friday morning – I think that for me that is the sign that Christmas has arrived. Gleðileg hátíð Alda og takk .. for all your writing and enlightening views on what is Iceland.

  • Fred November 29, 2009, 11:56 pm


    I really enjoy these glimpses into Icelandic culture and what life is like for Icelanders.

    Your political and economic reporting fills a vital need, but when it takes over, I miss the reporting on everyday life for everyday people.

  • sylvia hikins November 30, 2009, 12:24 am

    Bradsreet I think you had better come to Liverpool. Not only do we have fab Chisrmas lighting but the city has been taken over by 139 larger than life penguins each brightly decorated by artists, individuals, community groups, schools, etc. The penguins are hanging about in pairs all over the city and are having to get used to the constant flash of human cameras. There’s also an ice-rink, a big wheel to rival the London Eye and a HUGE Christmas tree. I’d still like to see what it’s like in Reykjavik though-are the Northern Lights dancing in the clear skies?
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • kevin o'connor waterford Ireland November 30, 2009, 12:28 am

    Merry Christmas All Icelandic Blog Fans across the wide world.

  • Karol W. November 30, 2009, 2:32 am

    Alda, let me briefly paint you a picture of the end of November in your former city – Toronto.

    First November in some 75 years that we haven’t had snow – at all, very decent temperatures of plus 10 C, green grass and lots of sun. I finished my biking season only a week ago – the latest ever. Yes, lots of lights on homes but consumers are really subdued.

    The last is, perhaps, not such a bad thing.

    The Norwegians say – God Jul. How is it in your language?

  • Thorunn Sleight November 30, 2009, 8:13 am

    When my mother and her brothers were growing up in the Reykjavík of the thirties and forties, they had a theory about why they were forced to eat this horrible stuff cheerfully every year. They decided that it was a sort of penance, imposed in order that they would be properly grateful and appreciative of the lovely Christmas food that would follow in the next several days – and who knows, they may have been right!

  • alda November 30, 2009, 10:22 am

    Thank you, everyone!

    James – oh believe me, it’s a GOOD thing.

    Petri – no, very different from the shark, at least for the discerning palate. 😉 – and as for the fascination, I have NO IDEA.

    sigga – takk og gleðilega hátíð sömuleiðis. 🙂

    Karol W – and there are global warming sceptics?? Crikey – that does not sound like the wintry Toronto I knew. — And over here we say ‘Gleðileg jól’.

    Thórunn – I think the theory is that this is how it originated – that the more well-to-do people gave the skate to their workers so they’d appreciate the food they got over Christmas even more.

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson November 30, 2009, 6:23 pm

    To Petri (and Alda) there is no fascination about smelly fish, it is just that the preservation methods used in each case resulted in the fishes being smelly but (to some people) edible.
    Nowadays the shark is mostly consumed by tourists (it has never been widely consumed by the locals) and the skate was, until fairly recently, unknown outside the north-western part of the country.

  • Joerg December 1, 2009, 7:09 am

    I visited Reykjavik in last year’s Christmas season and the year before and it was really amazing – even without trying the putrid skate. And as the winter is gaining momentum with snow and frost, which is adding to the atmosphere, I truly regret, that I have already used up all of my annual vacation for this year.

    Reading tourism brochures and watching reports about Iceland on TV might give you the impression, that Icelanders don’t eat much else than rotten fish. So, it really seems to be more a touristy thing – like the trolls and elves – although I had my first (and so far only) hákarl at a Þorrablót in Germany shared by many Icelanders.

  • Elizabeth December 3, 2009, 6:18 pm

    I’ve really enjoyed reading about the Icelandic Yule traditions in your past posts. My surname is Yule so I have a bit of an extra interest in all things Yule-related. It’s an unusual surname in England but much more common in northern Scotland (where my father’s ancestors came from.) I suspect somewhere along the line, many generations ago, there was a Norse ancestor who brought this surname over from Norway with him.

  • James December 4, 2009, 10:19 am

    I scanned today’s article in MSN News of “the world’s 10 foulest foods” and… it had Hákarl (Icelandic fermented shark) in number 4: