All is bright and beautiful
The merry rituals of Christmas in Iceland
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