Sunday, 30 December 2012

Tales of a Sparkly Icelandic Yuletide

Grýla (image by Brian Pilkington)

Hallo all! Festive Greetings and Yuletide Cheer from the depths of snowy Iceland. Just a brief update to let you know that I am alive and well, have not been eaten by the Icelandic Christmas Cat (Jólakötturinn), nor subjected to any abuse by Iceland’s festive family of 13 young delinquents, the Yuletide Lads (Jólasveinar). In fact, I have rather enjoyed the whole ‘foreigner in Reykjavík’ malarkey. I have been threatened with death-by-insane-troll-lady (named Grýla, who comes down from the mountains at Christmas to eat naughty girls and boys, and is mother to the ASBO-worthy Yuletide Lads); I have nearly passed out at the smell of rotten Skate cooking away for Þorláksmessa  (Feast of St. Thorlac, 23rd December) and passed out even more */slash died a little bit /* at the sight of old Icelandic grannies with no teeth chomping away on said rotten-cuisine, wiping away bits of rank Skate from their unnervingly hairy chins (I think one old granny’s chin was borderline beard, and now in hindsight I think she may have been troll-lady Grýla and not chomping on Skate at all, but roasted children).

Mjódd: tragic scene of abandonment
Christmas itself was a blast - somewhat eventful, but nonetheless exciting. Of course, if you have ever met me or been on the receiving end of my plans, it will come as no surprise to you that I am wholly incapable of making plans and *sticking* to them. I think somewhere deep in the murky realms of my Unconscious, there is a little voice whispering things to me: ‘So, you know you said you were going to do this really carefully, intricately planned thing which you spent about a month planning and you will screw other people over including yourself if you don’t stick to it? Here’s an awesome idea -- DON’T stick to it!’ So the fact that I found myself stranded in a bus shelter in Mjódd on Christmas Eve, far from my southern-countryside Christmas destination in Selfoss but equally unable to get back to Reykjavík came, in fact, as no surprise at all. In my defence, I had checked the bus times from Reykjavík to Selfoss, where I was to experience an exciting ‘traditional Icelandic Christmas’, courtesy of my lovely landlady Lóa, her boyfriend Kristján and their new kitten Tryggvi (the latter of which I was slightly suspicious of, given the many rumours of a fluffy, man-eating Christmas Cat) and the bus website ‘Stræ’ assured me that buses would be running on Christmas Eve (cue an angry British letter of complaint, Stræ You goin’ daaan). 

with Þórr in Hafnarfjörður. Nothing
to do with Christmas whatsoever
So, after downing an egg-nog cocktail at work (neither traditionally Icelandic, nor remotely tasty), I grabbed a taxi from Hlemmur (Reykjavík’s main bus terminal) to Mjódd, chatting away to the nice taxi man and quite oblivious to the fact that the reason I was taking a taxi in the first place was because Hlemmur was in lock-down, with neither a bus nor living-being in sight. Arriving in Mjódd, I was greeted by a similar scene of abandonment. Apart from a small gas station in the distance, there were no signs of life in this strange neighbourhood save for a rather pleasant Indian chap who talked extensively about Studio Ghibli, until I pointed out that we might be spending Christmas in a bus shelter, at which point he rather hastily shut up.

Of course, as with all my plan-making fails, I was rescued by a last minute stroke of luck. Lóa’s son (who conveniently was living in this alien land of Mjódd, quite unbeknownst to me) showed up with a battered old Landover, borrowed from a friend and, after about 45 minutes of wrong turns and a near-death-experience involving a ridiculously tall kerb, funky breaks and Meatloaf blasting out of the speakers, we made it out of Mjódd and were on the road to Selfoss. Driving past Elf Settlements in the mountains (no, really), stinky hot springs (which enamoured-tourists call ‘a thing of beauty’, and not-so-enamoured-Icelanders call, ‘mother earth farting’) and cold, bleak lava-fields, we eventually reached our destination in Iceland’s sleepy town Selfoss.

(please note epic fairylight-bedecked motorbike)
In Selfoss, I was greeted by a nommy ‘traditional Icelandic’ Christmas meal (Jólamatur): on the menu was Hangikjöt (smoked lamb), Hamborgarhryggur (smoked pork), pickled beetroot, vegetables, Laufabrauð (‘leaf bread’, a kind of sweet poppadum but thicker) and sugared potatoes (epic). Thankfully, for the meat-phobic vegetarian (i.e. me), my wonderful host Lóa had made a cheesy-gooey-vegetable wonder, BUT for those of you who know me and my somewhat peculiar vegan-vegetarian ways, you may be impressed / shocked / proud / disbelieving / totally ambivalent to learn that I ate *RAW* hangikjöt. Whilst being assured by Lóa’s boyfriend, Kristján, that it definitely wasn’t Horse or Whale, I tried what turned out to be a somewhat bloody, smoky chunk of raw lamb. Greeted by screams from Lóa: ‘You’ve killed the vegetarian! You’ve killed the vegetarian!’, and a slight wave of nausea on my part, I nonetheless felt proud - if not a little sick - at my achievements. Swallowing quickly, I washed the bloody pulp down with a glug of Iceland’s traditional Christmas drink Jólabland (Appelsín, Malt and Coke mixed together. Odd, but surprisingly tasty), not even with a shot of Brennavín to lend a helping hand. Totally bad-ass.

Laufabrauð ('Leaf bread')
All in all, the evening turned out to be a rather pleasant one, even with the various stranded-in-a-bus shelter and crazy-road-trip-through-the-mountains and eating-raw-meat incidents in mind. As you may or may not know, Icelanders celebrate Christmas on the 24 th December: presents are opened and big family meals are eaten on Christmas Eve, whilst the 25th is reserved for ‘bumming around’. So, in the evening after the amazing meal, I had an epic geek-out with Lóá’s boyfriend, Kristján (an old rocker from the ‘60s with a massive obsession with motorbikes). So when I got to handle Kristján’s collection of both pre- and post-Icelandic Independence Coins, as well as ogling at an old prayer book from the 1800s, my soul did a little happy-dance inside. Who’d have thunk? Around 11.30pm we drove outside and saw the epically awesome Northern Lights, and then went to Midnight Mass which was actually really cosy and an interesting experience, with the added bonus that I wasn’t struck-down with hailstones and fire (*bad heathen*).

by Guðjón (Stokkar og Steinar)
Christmas Day was not, however, as ‘bumming around-ey’ as I had previously anticipated. Instead, I was given a whirlwind tour of the countryside. I visited an isolated farmstead where Kristján’s friend, Guðjón, sculpts Viking crafts using techniques handed down to him by his father and grandfather from the ‘old days’ (such as Viking houses, longboats and weird totem-poles), which he makes for museums and movie sets. After resolving to become a Viking’s wife and live in these little wooden houses, I was quickly whisked away into the modern world, pulling up into the small town of Hveragerði, home of Iceland’s very own greenhouse-grown vegetables thanks to its amazing geothermal power. Taking a detour through the mountains, including some off-roading and driving through a river, we came to Raufarholshellir: a creepy cave below the earth, cold and dank and threatening to swallow you up in its dark, gaping mouth. Icy water dripped from the Grýlukerti (‘Grýla's candlesticks’, or ‘icicles’), and I learned that this magnificent natural feature once housed Iceland’s most notorious outlaws and villains (útilegumenn), living on the outskirts of society in perpetual hiding.  Spooky but fascinating. The day was truly wonderful. I experienced the delights of a landscape full of folk myths and legends (rumour has it that the cave Stórihellir in Hellisskógur is haunted by a ghost of a man who hung himself with a blue scarf, whilst the huge rock Jóruklettur is the result of the troll-maiden Jóra ripping parts of the cliff off in a giant rage and casting it into the river Ölfusá ).

So forget mulled-wine, brussel sprouts and the Brownie Guides’ never-sodding-ending Carol Singing: my Icelandic Christmas was full of trolls, mountains, Meatloaf and bizarre rotten-slash-raw food. But what I really like about Icelandic Christmas is its total disregard for all things Santa: no jolly-red coke-guzzling white-bearded borderline-paedophile to be seen anywhere; no magical reindeer, and no tinsel-strewn shopping aisles from the end of October. Icelanders don’t even start to think of Christmas until about the 12th December, and most of their Christmas shopping gets done only a few days before the Big Day itself. Icelandic Christmas is short and sweet, so you are not sick of it before it has even arrived. Icelanders have their own tradition, albeit with man-eating cats and delinquent Yule Lads. Although I missed Christmas pudding and brandy butter, nothing was more awesome than cruising through Elf settlements and lava-fields in the snow-capped mountains on a cold, sparkly Icelandic Christmas day


  1. That sounds like so much fun, Anna! And very much the Anna I came to know and love in Cambridge ;)

    I hope you continue to have a FABULOUS time out there in Iceland.

    Much Studio Cambridge love coming your way,

    Laura xxxx

  2. Thanks darling!! Glad to know someone out there is reading my waffle.....hope all is well with you, I look forward to hearing more about your preparations for the Big Day!!xxxx

  3. Yay Icelanders also celebrate the 24th!! do tell more about elf villages. can i come live there with you...

    1. please come and live in an elf village with me. we can make friends with the mountain trolls and steal children and harvest pugs in our own magical pug-farm.xxxxxxxxx