I have a confession to make: I love December. I love the food, I love the smells, I love the warmth of the light from the Christmas decorations and I love that it brings the best out in people. People are more compassionate, they are more willing to sacrifice their normal routines to spend time with their loved ones, they are more willing to do good deeds and they are just nicer somehow.
I know there are always a few grinches here and there, the people that hate everything about Christmas and walk around shopping malls with the weight of the world on their shoulders because despite hating Christmas presents they’re too codependent not to participate. But even their wickedest of looks and snarkiest remarks are not enough to ruin my December joy.
I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time I dreaded December like the plague (not that I worry much about the plague on a daily basis) and I spent the whole month being super tense and stressed. But something changed and now I even smile when I see IKEA advertising their Christmas stuff in October – something that a few years ago would have sent me straight to a month-long rant about capitalistic pigs and their need to ruin everything.
This December I’ve been watching a lot of classic Christmas movies (while I answer your e-mails at night from my couch) and it’s got me thinking about the difference in how different nations approach Christmas. I saw It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time, ploughed through some horrible made-for-TV Christmas movies on Netflix, watched Love Actually like I always do, watched half of Scrooged and laughed endlessly over Clark Griswald’s earnest but terribly over-ambitious attempts to bring his family some holiday cheer.
I know you can’t judge a nation by its movies but I assume that these Christmas movies are designed to evoke nostalgic memories of Christmases past in the viewer’s mind so there must be some truth to them, right? I mean, Bill Murray didn’t actually time travel in a yellow taxi but maybe people in New York do sometimes have to work on Christmas Eve like the actors trying to finish the Christmas Carol in Scrooged? And in most countries around us Christmas day is more important than Christmas eve.
These ponderings prompted me to share with you a few things that popped into mind about Icelandic Christmas when watching these movies.
Home Alone – going away for Christmas
Icelandic people mostly don’t leave their homes for Christmas – they go home. There’s always a few that decide they don’t want to deal with December and book a three-week all-inclusive holiday to Tenerife as soon as the days start to get shorter but for most people, Christmas is a time you spend with family. At home.
Icelanders that live abroad come home in big flocks over the holidays and every other home is filled with people sleeping on stupidly uncomfortable sofa beads and children being spoiled by grandparents that don’t understand what they did wrong for their kids to live so far away from them.
Before I met the boyfriend, I would go to my mother’s house on the 23rd and stay there until around the 26th. To give you some context, and help you understand how important home is on Christmas, I lived 20 minutes away by bus and could probably have walked there in an hour and a half.
Although the idea of spending Christmas on a faraway beach, sipping Mojitos, may sound tempting in theory – most people would never do it.
Love Actually – attending a school play on Christmas Eve
To an Icelander, this scene in the otherwise hugely popular Christmas movie, makes no sense at all.
Icelanders celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve or the 24th of December. That’s when you sit down to eat with your family, that’s also when we open the presents and then cuddle on the sofa until the wee hours of the morning, eating Quality Street chocolate, with a new book that came from one of the packages under the tree.
One of the few things that people do outside the home on this evening is going to church. There are special Christmas services in most churches either at 6 pm or 11:00 or 11:30 pm and they are an important tradition for many families – event though they probably don’t go to church any other day of the year.
People eat at home, they dress up and often the extended family is involved. When we spend Christmas with my family (we alternate spending Christmas Eve with my family and the boyfriend’s family) it’s my mum and her partner, the boyfriend and I, my siblings and our grandmother.
So Icelandic people would never go to the pub (they are closed, by law, anyway) or a school play on this day and very few eat out. Which is one of the reasons why there are hardly any restaurants open on this night.
Scrooged – working on Christmas Eve
Unless you are a health care professional, a staff member at a hotel or you work somewhere where somebody must be there 24/7 – you don’t work on Christmas Eve.
It has been particularly difficult for people who are visiting Reykjavík over the holidays to understand why there aren’t more restaurants open on the 24th or why they can’t go on a northern lights tour that night. Every year stores are staying open longer and more tours are offered on the 24th but I guess employers draw the line when it comes to the evening of the 24th. The don’t want to be the reason their employees can’t spend this very important time with the ones they love and the general attitude is that nobody should have to work on Christmas eve unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Although tourists and offering good service is important, family is just more important.
Elf – believing Santa Clause lives at the north pole
I don’t know how to break this to you but Santa does not live at the north pole. In fact, there is no Santa – there are just yule lads and they live in Mt.Esja. Except if you from any other town in Iceland than Reykjavík, then they live in whatever mountain is closest to that town.
In Iceland we have 13 santa clauses, or Yule Lads, that live in the mountains and come to town around Christmas. They are not your run of the mill jolly pink-cheeked Coca-Cola Santas but mischievous half human half trolls that traditionally left their cozy home in the mountains to cause havoc for us just humans. They have names like Door-Slammer, Pot-Licker and Candle-Moocher but their names usually respond to their preferred method of havoc causing.
Over the years though, the yule lads have lost their edge a little bit though and they are slowly morphing into santas in the more traditional sense. Instead of their once wicked ways they now come down from the mountains one by one to put treats into the shoes in the windows of Icelandic children that go to bed extra early in the hope that it will save them from the awful fate of the rotten potato. Kids are also getting smarter and now usually put a bigger shoe or a boot in the window to accommodate a bigger treat.
The yule lads have a mother called Grýla (who eats children that don’t behave) and a father called Leppalúði (who, to be honest, seems to be a bit of a deadbeat dad). As if they aren’t bad enough the children of Iceland also have to deal with the Christmas cat that eats anyone that doesn’t get something new to wear before Christmas. Obviously.
PS. I think my favorite is Elf. I haven’t watched it yet – I’m saving it for the evening of the 23rd when everything is ready for Christmas and all that is left is wait. And laugh. Because Buddy the elf is the best!