All is bright and beau­ti­ful

The merry rit­u­als of Christ­mas in Ice­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - CAMERON PEGG

It is a few days be­fore Christ­mas and I’m sport­ing my best pair of Speedos in the snow. Or rather, I’m star­ing through a glass door at a frigid con­crete path won­der­ing how I can pos­si­bly make it to the “hot pots” that beckon 75m away.

Here at the Lau­gardal­slaug in Reyk­javik, Ice­land’s largest pub­lic pool, brav­ing the frost bare­foot is the price to en­ter the warm bub­bling bliss be­yond. My friend and host Steinthor as­sures me this is a com­pletely nor­mal thing to do — I will def­i­nitely not freeze. We cross the thresh­old and the in­stinct of nav­i­gat­ing scald­ing sand on Aus­tralian beaches quickly kicks in. We take a dip in the near­est pool to ac­cli­ma­tise, then move to a more elab­o­rate one fea­tur­ing stairs and benches. Hav­ing a soak while chat­ting with friends and fam­ily is a na­tional pas­time in Ice­land. It is not long be­fore two men in­tro­duce them­selves; they are best mates from Aus­tralia and New Zealand who took a gap year here many moons ago. The Aussie re­turned home and is now show­ing the fam­ily his favourite places; the Kiwi never left, and proudly be­came an Ice­landic cit­i­zen.

The an­tipodean con­nec­tions con­tinue dur­ing my Ice­landic Christ­mas. A ver­sion of John Farn­ham’s You’re the Voice sur­prises me one day on the ra­dio, its melody un­mis­tak­able de­spite the trans­lated lyrics. Steinthor ex­plains that many English songs have been trans­formed into Christ­mas car­ols in this way ( Is­lands in the Stream be­ing an­other). I won­der whether Farn­ham is aware of his un­likely Ice­landic fan base. Aus­tralian trav­ellers rep­re­sent a small but rapidly grow­ing mar­ket for this proud Nordic na­tion; tour op­er­a­tor Ice­land Travel re­ports a 30 per cent year-on-year in­crease in Aus­tralian book­ings, with about 5000 vis­i­tors recorded in 2015, many opt­ing to stay dur­ing win­ter and avoid the sum­mer crush. And ap­par­ently, we are also happy campers, top­ping all na­tion­al­i­ties in a tourist sat­is­fac­tion sur­vey re­leased in May.

You sim­ply can’t visit Reyk­javik in any sea­son with­out cran­ing your neck in won­der at Hall­grim­skirkja, a church with a 73m-high spire punc­tu­at­ing the sky­line. Crafted from con­crete to mimic cool­ing lava, the jagged fa­cade brings to mind a gi­ant Lego vol­cano, while in­side the col­umns gather in the ceil­ing like branches. I visit the church not to take in the im­pres­sive view from the tower but to sam­ple the fine acous­tics. The Cana­dian Em­bassy is host­ing the an­nual English-lan­guage Christ­mas ser­vice with a gen­er­ous help­ing of car­ols. The renowned res­i­dent choir per­form the favourites beau­ti­fully but the lone Ice­landic carol of the pro­gram eclipses them all. Rev­erend Irma and Rev­erend Bjarni share the pro­ceed­ings, and af­ter­wards the con­gre­ga­tion gath­ers at the em­bassy for gin­ger bis­cuits and medic­i­nal hot choco­late with gen­er­ous dol­lops of whipped cream.

Christ­mas in Ice­land may be shaped by sound but it is de­fined by light. On a day trip to pretty Budir, two hours from the cap­i­tal, I no­tice there are lights strung on the grave­stones fronting the town’s fa­mous black wooden church. (Even the gates of the prison out­side Reyk­javik are af­forded sim­i­lar treat­ment.) Trees in towns twin­kle with dec­o­ra­tions and the tri­an­gu­lar form of ad­vent lights is vis­i­ble in ev­ery other win­dow. To save the ef­fort of hunt­ing the fickle North­ern Lights, the glass scales of Harpa, Reyk­javik’s ex­quis­ite mod­ern opera house, flash a dig­i­tal fac­sim­ile through­out the night. It all makes sense when the win­ter sun shines but four hours a day.

The lack of day­light does not slow down the rev­elry, es­pe­cially on De­cem­ber 23, known as St Thor­lak’s Day. Ice­landers do two things to hon­our their only saint: en­joy the sin­gu­lar del­i­cacy that is skata (fer­mented st­ingray), and shop up a storm. I join the crowds on Lau­gave­gur, the main drag, for a last-minute gift-buy­ing frenzy. Street stalls of­fer jo­la­glogg (mulled wine with flaked al­monds), and pubs pour jo­lab­jor (Christ­mas beer), ruddy brews that pop with fruit and spice.

An­i­ma­tions of the Yule Lads, 13 mis­chief-mak­ing trolls who each mark a day of Christ­mas, am­ble across down­town build­ings. Con­ve­niently for the shop­keep­ers, leg­end has it that the gi­ant Yule Cat will eat those who have not re­ceived any new clothes be­fore Christ­mas Eve. Late in the even­ing I en­ter the small store of lo­cal cou­ple Helga and Orri, whose hand­made jew­ellery is sold un­der the la­bel Or­rifinn. The de­signs are del­i­cate, dis­tinc­tive and mostly fash­ioned in sil­ver, from minia­ture an­chors and keys to even a cut-throat ra­zor.

Christ­mas is of­fi­cially cel­e­brated here on the even­ing of the 24th, at 6pm, when the bells from a cathe­dral near Par­lia­ment House ring out on na­tional ra­dio, and the fam­ily meal can be­gin. Aus­tralia may have per­fected the vi­ral mar­ket­ing cam­paign, but Ice­landers treat lamb with sin­gu­lar af­fec­tion. Dur­ing my stay I am served it mul­ti­ple times, each vari­a­tion as tasty as the last.

For the Christ­mas meal, a roast sad­dle of lamb the size of drift­wood ar­rives at the ta­ble with a sen­sa­tional herbed crust and mush­room gravy. Caramelised pota­toes are paired with Wal­dorf salad. No fes­tive feast would be com­plete with­out a cu­ri­ous but de­li­cious com­bi­na­tion of root beer and or­ange soda unique to this part of the world. For most of the year the two prod­ucts are bot­tled sep­a­rately, but come Christ­mas pre-mixed cans of Malt & Ap­pelsin ap­pear on the shelves for those ea­ger to par­take in the rit­ual. I quickly be­come a con­vert. Mer­ci­fully, skata is not on the menu.

On De­cem­ber 26, of­fi­cially the Se­cond Day of Christ­mas, the Yule Lads have be­gun their re­turn to the moun­tains as I start my long jour­ney back to Aus­tralia. At the spot­less Ke­flavik In­ter­na­tional Air­port, I savour one last jo­lab­jor and look across the tar­mac to see the North­ern Lights danc­ing on the liv­ery of the na­tional car­rier.

• ice­land­travel.is • vis­itreyk­javik.is

Clock­wise from main: fes­tive Lau­gave­gur, Reyk­javik’s main shop­ping street; Hall­grim­skirkja church; Lau­gardal­slaug pool com­plex; folk­lore im­ages are pro­jected on a down­town build­ing

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