TROLLS, BONFIRES & PUTREFIED SKATE—Surviving the Holidays in Iceland

I spent December talking about trolls: the one with the big nose that sniffs doorways, the peeping tom troll, the one with an unusually long tongue that licks empty bowls, or the sly one that steals Skyr (yogurt). Staying in Iceland for Christmas meant accepting all kinds of wild and wacky traditions, including feigning belief in a group of thirteen trolls, also known as the Yule lads.

Door sniffer Yule lad

I knew it was getting weird when M, our 4 year-old, came home from preschool terrified and obsessed with these thirteen trolls. He knew all their names, stories, and the perfect Icelandic pronunciation for each of them. He loved that if he left his shoe in the window for the thirteen evenings proceeding Christmas, he’d get a gift from them (one each night). But he was terrified that his vanilla Skyr would go missing or the door-slamming troll would spook him while he slept. Imagine the look on his face when he spoke about their mother, Gryla, or their cat, both of whom eat children (the mom if kids misbehave, the cat if kids don’t get new clothing).

all 13 yule lads, courtesy of Boyd Stephan

View from a Christmas Market

View returning from a Christmas market

But this was only the beginning. While the skies stayed dark, with only 4-5 hours of daylight each day, the celebrations grew in number and size. There were parties to celebrate the release of the Christmas ale, Christmas markets in every neighborhood, and even scavenger hunts in downtown Reykjavik to find the projected images of these animated trolls. We ice skated, we drank, and we ventured to Christmas museums and the hinterlands to find a Santa that danced around a campfire and sold Christmas trees.

Christmas festivities at the city museum

Christmas Cat animated image downtown

On the 23rd, we headed to the main street to sniff out the putrefied skate, a holiday delicacy. Wandering among hundreds of people, we lingered under a light snowfall while the smell of ammonia wafted around us. On the 24th, the family set out for the Blue Lagoon to soak and steam beneath snow, howling wind, and sleet.

Downtown Reykjavik on the 23rd

Headed into the Blue Lagoon, 10am

Blue Lagoon, Christmas Eve

Light snowfall became a Christmas blizzard that soon turned into tremendous explosions. For the New Year, Icelanders go nuts. Everyone lights fireworks: in their front yard, off balconies, over the sea. No license required, no fire department needed, no age requirement—any size explosion is available to you. Between massive bonfires and big bangs we rang in the New Year among friends.

New Years Eve, image from

Exhausted, we slept through the long black morning of New Years Day before we headed to the President’s home for a diplomatic reception. In our finery, Mr. Green and I toasted a last glass of champagne and stared out at the grey blue sky as it, once again, turned to darkness.

Residence for the President of Iceland

About ericajgreen

Writer/Editor living in Reykjavik, Iceland
This entry was posted in expatriate, Holidays, Iceland, snow, Travel, Winter and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to TROLLS, BONFIRES & PUTREFIED SKATE—Surviving the Holidays in Iceland

  1. I am glad to hear M is learning all about trolls, I have one called Þóra living in my woodshed. She is bilingual in Futhork and English luckily…perhaps M will be able to give me a proper introduction to her Icelandic cousins some day.

    I would guess the putrefied skate is just a warm-up for the Bóndadagur menu…I will look forward to THOSE pictures!

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