Christmas season in Iceland is veritably a season, an array of events that goes way beyond Christmas Day. Our holiday season, jól, is born from the marriage of the winter solstice and the birth of Jesus. The celebratory season starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas where we infuse our darker days with shimmering lights and candles while looking forward to brighter days, enjoying gourmet food and the company of each other.

The spirit runs deep in our veins and there is a certain holiness to the festivities. On December 24th, the day we open presents, church bells chime across the country at 6pm, alerting us that it’s officially Christmas (Aðfangadagur). Families gather over festive dinners of either ptarmigans or hamborgarahrygg (glazed rack of ham). The table is decked in its best linen and tableware and everyone is dressed up to forgo the risk of getting eaten by the jólakötturinn or, the Christmas cat.There’s a magical aura that hovers over us and our homes.

The six week seasonal celebration starts with Aðventa (Advent), the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve, when we light candles and set up lights and decorations, shop, bake and prepare for the holidays. A big part of Advent is our lavish Christmas buffets at various restaurants, offering dozens of dishes, anything from herring and cured salmon to reindeer pâté, puffin, smoked lamb, roast pork, rack of ham and various desserts.

During Advent, our thirteen santas – yule lads – start coming to town one at a time and show up at children’s Christmas dances. The children anticipate them coming and know in what order they arrive. With this is another somewhat odd tradition of children putting a shoe in the window starting thirteen days before Christmas hoping for a treat or a toy from each yule lad. When badly behaved, they are at risk of receiving a rotten potato. This is a favorite bargain used by parents to encourage model behavior of their children during the season.

December 23rd is Þorláksmessa, or St. Thorlak Mass, where the tradition is to eat fermented skate for lunch, an intensely foul smelling fish that tastes like a shark. It’s also one of our biggest shopping days where stores are open until midnight. People often leave one gift left to fetch on Þorláksmessa and spend the evening roaming the stores on Laugavegur, going to restaurants and running into friends and family members.

Jóladagur (Christmas Day) is spent with extended family members playing games and eating smoked lamb with potatoes, peas and a bechamel-like sauce. Annar í jólum, meaning second of Christmas, is similar to Christmas day, depending on family traditions, and is always social and festive.

Gamlársdagur, meaning Old Year’s Day, is New Year’s Eve, another evening spent with family members dining on gourmet dishes, watching an annual comedy sketch making fun of current events and culture that had happened in the country during the passing year. Approaching midnight, every household gets ready to ring in the new year with a big bang painting the sky above the capital and its suburbs with colorful fireworks, followed by partying well into the night. Nýársdagur, or New Year’s Day, is usually spent with ease at home recovering from the night before and contemplating the year ahead.

Þrettándinn, which means the thirteenth, is the final day of the season and is celebrated with fireworks and an elf bonfire as a way of saying goodbye to the Christmas season. Locals attend the bonfire in their neighborhood and sing songs with flaming torches.