Icelandic Traditions & Winter Folklore – Akureyri & the Yule Lads

Just when you thought that Iceland couldn’t possibly get any cooler, along comes winter!
Bringing with it the promise of Snow, Northern Lights, Christmas and the Ski Season.

The bright, white nights of summer are long gone, as is autumn’s rosy glow, and despite daylight hours being at their shortest, winter is the time when Iceland’s cultural light positively beams. Local Art Galleries, Theatres, the Icelandic Opera, Film festivals. You name it. The collective artistic community springs into life during the darkest days of the year!

‘Serious’ Christmas celebrations begin the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Advent candles are lit and the nation gets ready to countdown. Books are exchanged and the graves of loved ones visited and respects paid. Christmas, but with an Icelandic twist…

For example. There is no Coca-Cola man in red here. It’s not that he’s not around. He is. He just doesn’t take centre stage. That honour is reserved for the terrifying Troll Wife, Grýla, her hapless husband Leppalúði and their thirteen sons, collectively knowns as the Jólasveinar or Yule Lads – oh, and a VERY nasty black cat!

Traditional Icelandic Christmas fare features smoked lamb or ‘hangikjöt’ with Ptarmigan also finding a spot on the festive menu in some households. Especially those with a hunting license.
Putrefied skate however, (a required taste!) is a treat that is reserved for December 23rd – Þorláksmessa.

So, how about it?
With its northerly location and abundant snow fall, Akureyri really is THE perfect place to take an Icelandic winter break. The town is well connected by road and air, has a great variety of accommodation options, good quality restaurants and a lively weekend bar scene.

Pictured below is Goðafoss, Waterfall of the Gods. Located about 45 minutes from Akureyri.


There are all sorts of winter adventures to choose from in and around Akureyri. For example the best selling ‘Jewels of the North’ tour includes visits to the volcanic splendours of the Mývatn area and should be on every visitor to Akureyr’s list.


Other winter adventures include northern light hunting by boat or super-truck, snowmobiling, ice-fishing, horse riding, whale watching and al-fresco hot spring bathing. The latter offering a choice between Akureyri’s local geothermal swimming pool, or the Mývatn Nature Baths pictured below.


Akureyri is also home to Iceland’s famous faux-frosted, candy-cane Christmas House – where Jól is celebrated 12 months of the year. Regardless of whether you visit in July during a cruise ship shore excursion, or in winter under a blanket of snow. You will find a fire lit in the hearth, a traditional smoked leg of lamb hanging from the rafters, and carols playing in the background.

Auðunn Níelsson Ljósmyndari

Keep an eye open for the aforementioned Yule lads or Jólasveinar, along with Grýla their much feared Ogress mother lurking in the store’s basement!
And if you’re looking to come face to face with the real thing, then fear not, as it is indeed possible to meet Iceland’s famous Jólasveinar (in person!) at Mývatn’s lava labyrinth, Dimmuborgir during December.


Insiders Tip: The Mývatn Nature baths are located close to Dimmuborgir, so why not add a relaxing out door geothermal bathe to your Yuletide winter adventure?

There is also plenty going on at Akureyri’s Cultural Centre Hof during the winter months, and not just for an Icelandic speaking audience. As an example The St Petersburg Festival Ballet and The North Iceland Symphony Orchestra will perform Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker this coming November 22nd.


And please don’t restrict your winter wanderlusting to just the Christmas Holiday season. Winter in Iceland continues long after December – in fact it’s not until mid March that the serious skiing kicks off.
Located just shy of the arctic circle, Akureyri is Iceland’s most popular winter resort with nearby mount Hlíðarjfall  listed on the unofficial world top 12 exotic ski resorts in the world.


Akureyri also hosts the Iceland Winter Games, the northernmost big jump free ski competition of the season. And even though the event is relatively new, it is already attracting high ranking world skiers and snowboarders. All in all, around 60 winter sport related events take place over just one week in mid/late March, early April.


And last but not least, how about a ride on a seriously gorgeous and much prized Icelandic pure-bred Viking Horse?
The perfect end to the perfect Icelandic winter break in Akureyri, the Jewel of North Iceland.
Now all you have to do is decide whether to be naughty or nice and book that trip!



Images thanks to:
Visit Akureyri, Visit North Iceland, Visit Mývatn, Jólahusið, The Mývatn Nature Baths & Hey Iceland – amongst a couple of others that I was unable to find credits for.
Sincere apologies if I’ve missed you!


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