When Grandpa Was a Little Boy
This was written for my daughters, Lisa and Dawn, and niece Ingela, when they were still young, to describe how their grandfather and his family celebrated Christmas in the early 1900s. I found it among family papers that had been passed along to me by my mother, or perhaps my sister.
Christmas in Iceland is not the same in the cities and in the country, and it has changed much in many parts of the land since grandpa was little. Then, he lived with his mom and dad and five brothers and one sister in a small fishing village with only 2000 inhabitants, Ísafjörður, in the northwest of Iceland.
The winter is long and snowy and windy. Since this is so far north, the days in December are very short so the children go to school in the morning in the dark, go home for lunch in daylight but return from school in the dark in the early afternoon. But, during the very long nights, when it is cold and the sky is cloudless, the northern lights dance in the heavens so the stars and moon can hardly be seen.
Around the middle of December, the ship was usually the Christmas supplier, including many small spruce Christmas trees from Denmark, because Iceland is a treeless arctic country. But, sometimes the ship is late, and then the people take out their homemade Christmas trees made of broomsticks and dowels.
The stand is two crossed pieces of wood. The broomstick is about 6 to 7 feet high (roughly two meters). The branches are made of several rings of four to six dowels, each about the thickness of a finger. The dowels are shortest near the top, and longest at the bottom. Often it’s painted green, and then decorated just like an ordinary tree with all kinds of glitter and small ordinary candles. There are usually some small braided or woven paper baskets filled with candy and given to the children in the evening.
Christmas in Iceland back when Grandpa was young, began at six o’clock in the dark afternoon of Christmas Eve, when the church bells ring to start the celebration. All the stores closed and all work stopped about two hours before. Everyone dresses in their best clothes, both those who go to church and those who stay at home.
The Christmas tree had been decorated earlier that afternoon. In our house, Grandpa was the oldest boy so he saw that this was done from four and six that day. At six o’clock the tree was moved out to the middle of the floor, the Christmas gifts put under it and the candles lighted. Before long, all the children of the house and sometimes some of the neighbors formed a ring around the tree and walked slowly around it for an hour or more singing the many Christmas carols we knew.
After the first set of candles had burned down, there was a pause for eating. The Christmas food in some houses was arctic ptarmigan (related to quail) with potatoes, followed by a dessert of dessert of rice pudding with raisins. Most families, like ours, had a heavily smoked leg of lamb (hangikjöt) with diced potatoes in a white sauce, or with mashed turnips. For dessert, we had a so-called Christmas porridge (smjörgraut) made of milk and flour and butter and slightly sweetened (a very thick white sauce), with some kind of fruit sauce on top.
After dinner, the children were allowed to pick their packages from under the tree. When the presents had been opened, everyone compared what they had received. We always received some clothes or books or other necessary things but some years when we were too poor because our father (Afi) got paid too little for his fish, we got perhaps only some woolen mittens and an embroidered handkerchiefs. The oldest boys usually got a deck or two of cards so all the kids could play except not on Christmas Eve.
When the gifts had been opened and enjoyed, there was sometimes more singing and dancing around the tree. After the children got their candy bags, we all got some oranges or apples. The fruit was very much appreciated because it was imported only once a year, around Christmas.
The children did not go out on Christmas Eve before the gifts had been distributed, because they were afraid of the Christmas Boys (Jólasveinar). There is no Santa in Iceland, but the stories say that in the mountains lives the witch Grýla, her husband Bóli and their thirteen sons, the Christmas Boys (Jólasveinar) and their large black cat. The boys are sent to the towns nine days before Christmas to snitch food and various other things from the people. When they return on Christmas Eve, they take back with them any children who did not receive a gift because they had been nasty. The very hungry Christmas Cat eats these bad children. We were, of course, always nice and never were brought to the Christmas cat. We never heard of anyone who had been snatched by the Christmas boys, or who’d ever even seen them. But, you could never be sure. So… you did not go out before you were sure you’d got at least one present.
On Christmas Eve most people in Iceland stay at home, and also on Christmas Day, when only the churches are open. All the stores and theaters are closed. On Christmas Day some families visit each other, but visits were otherwise restricted to the second day of Christmas, which is like an ordinary Sunday and the theaters open up that day in the evening. Guests are invited for hot chocolate and various cakes and cookies that were baked the week before Christmas. After the hot chocolate, they get a cup or two of coffee which is sucked through a sugar cube. The children, in the meantime, are outside playing, or showing each other the toys they got, many of which were made just to play with in the snow.