village of Reykjahlíð sits at the northern shore of Mývatn
in northern Iceland. Much of the lake is frozen during the depths
of winter, though parts are kept free by warm springs.
winter view of Reykjavík
looks northwards. The tall building on the left is the church Hallgrímskirkja.
other northern people, the Icelanders look forward to Christmas as a welcome
break during the bleak midwinter months. The festivities date back to
an ancient pagan Yule feast but this was later taken over as a Christian
celebration and in a land where poverty and hardship were the norm, the
Yule celebration (held around the time of the solstice) was an excuse
for feasting and merriment. The Sagas credit the Norwegian king Hakon
with making "the Yule celebration begin at the same time as that
of Christians and that each man should have a measure [about five gallons]
of ale, or else pay in money, and celebrate while the ale lasted."
These descendants of the Vikings certainly knew how to banish the midwinter
Today, Icelanders celebrate Christmas in a similar fashion to other European
peoples. It is essentially a family affair and preparations, especially
cooking, start well before the event. The long hours of darkness and the
severity of the winter weather tend to keep the festivities centred around
the home, but outside the balconies are decorated with a myriad of coloured
bulbs that help banish the darkness.
Thanks to the bounteous harvest of fish from the surrounding seas, the
Icelanders are now a comparatively rich nation and material conditions
have improved dramatically this century. The Icelanders have rushed headlong
into consumerism and Reykjavík`s shops are thronged in the
run-up to Christmas. The long and hard Icelandic winters have nurtured
a great love of books and these are very popular Christmas presents though
their sales are now hard-pressed by the increasing popularity of LP records.
As in Britain, children clamour for the "in" presents and generally,
Christmas is very commercial much to the delight of the shopkeepers!
Most consumer goods are imported and rather expensive so some of the more
adventurous shoppers go for a one-day shopping trip to cities such as
Christmas trees aren`t as common as in other European countries as the
land is too poor to grow substantial forests, but the trees that are sold
help pay for the developing forestry industry. However, a huge Christmas
tree, an annual gift from the people of Oslo, is erected in Austurvöllur,
Reykjavík`s main square.
Santa Claus is a recent addition to Christmas festivities. Back in the
days of Yuletide celebrations, there were characters called jólasveinar
or Yuletide Lads. These were supposed to be the (unlucky) thirteen half-trolls
that were the offspring of a bogeywoman called Gryla. Today they have
been made more socially acceptable, with their child-eating habits replaced
by mere mischievousness, and boys play these roles dressed up in Santa
Claus outfits an interesting example of how parts of one tradition
are taken over by another.
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