“Christmas is all about family and traditions for me.”
I just loved Christmas as a kid. I still do, but as a child it was the most exciting time of year. There was so much to look forward to: school break; a car trip to grandma’s (over the hills and through the woods as it were); snow, snowball fights and sledding; drinking hot cocoa when it was time to break from being outside in the cold; participating in nativity plays at church, complete with live camels and donkeys; seeing the tree, lights and decorations go up; Christmas carols and sermons, good food and of course, presents.
As you can hear I was definitely a “Christmas person”, you know that annoying person that puts on Christmas music in November.
So before the first Christmas I had here in Iceland seven years ago I was both nervous and excited. Nervous at missing my family’s celebration, missing seeing all of them, missing the heavy warm side-dishes that are common in the States and of course missing the eggnog – an egg based Christmas drink which is popular in the States. But then again I was super excited to spend Christmas for the first time with the man I loved. To spend Christmas with my new Icelandic family and of course experience Icelandic Christmas traditions for the first time.
And boy, were some of the traditions different from the ones I grew up to as a kid back in Virginia.
First there was feasting of “skata”, a smelly rotten fish traditionally offered on the 23rd of December or St. Thorlak’s Day as it is called in Iceland (the day commemorates the only Icelandic Catholic saint, bishop Thorlak, who died in 1193 after a vigorous battle to uphold the clerical celibacy in Iceland).
Then there was the Christmas food, which was different as well. Gone were the heavy warm side dishes of the States. Instead we had red cabbage, cold peas and corn and for the main meat dish there was Hamborgarhryggur – a delicious cut of pork I now refer to as “ham-cloud” (i. “skinku-ský”) because of the light and delicious texture. And no eggnog, instead Christmas ale (i.e.”jólaöl”), something akin to a mixture of orange soda and non-alcoholic malt soda. Very tasty.
And those were not the only different things I noticed. Santa Clause had been replaced by 13 “Yule lads” who leave presents in the shoes of young children placed overnight in window stills for the 13 days approaching Christmas. The act itself not so different from American tradition of hanging stockings (large knitted socks filled with small toys and candy) over a fireplace. Something my parents would place at the end of our – my and my sister’s – beds when we were kids. (The deal was we could open them immediately, but couldn’t wake up our parents til around 10AM to open the rest of the presents.)
The biggest surprise? Maybe how “low-key” everything was compared to in the States (the US is a consumer society). There were fewer commercials, less decorations and less intense gift giving. The opening of presents on the 24th of December – a day early for me – in the evening after a large dinner, rather than in the morning. Which I thought that was strange. But when in Rome…
When Christmas was over I felt a sense of peace and comfort about this new country that has since become my home (I acquired citizenship in 2014). But as much as I enjoyed spending time with my new family in Iceland I definitely missed my extended family in the US. And a lot of other things as well. Especially the traditions I was raised on. So the year after I decided to try to “fix” the nostalgia, partly by making the things I miss the most.
I made eggnog from scratch. More cookies. And stockings filled with gifts. One for my husband, with his favorite candies and a small gift inside. We spent Christmas Eve at his parents house, eating a traditional Icelandic meal and I made the side dishes for Christmas dinner. Sweet potatoes casserole and stuffing (Also my favorite at Thanksgiving which I now host every year for my Icelandic family).
And as the years have passed we’ve come also up with some traditions of our own.
We decorate our house with single candles in each window rather than Menoras (an interesting Icelandic Christmas decoration I do not know the origin of) and we tend to give each other functional gifts such as new vacuums or kitchen mixers, but still wrap and try to surprise each other each year. My husband hates surprises, but I love them, both getting and giving. We also take a yearly family portrait and have it printed on cards for my mother to mail to all my relatives stateside. These often end up on said relatives refrigerators along with their other relatives.
Even though several traditions are different, I still feel the sense of excitement, the wonder, and the eagerness to spend time with my family, both new and old, something I can do all year-long, but Christmas offers an extra special time (and several days off of work) to concentrate on.