By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Why is it that northern cold countries have this comforting reputation of warmth and hospitality? Close your eyes and try to imagine how Christmas time would be like in Iceland and there you are! A log-fire crackles in the fireplace, you’re wearing one of these amazingly warm handmade wool sweaters, the table is laid with heaps of unusual tempting food and the whole family is going to be in a great mood. What if all this was not that inaccessible, even this year?
Without being impossible travelling abroad this year is quite complicated and most of us have resigned to stay home for Christmas. So, let be creative, overcome sullenness and move out of our Christmas routine. Draw upon the skills of your family and if you can’t go to Iceland let Iceland comes to you.
Step one: set the mood
Icelanders are pretty straightforward people and everyone feels free to start Christmas celebration anytime in December. Some people start decorating their Christmas tree as soon as December 1st while others make it a point to wait until December 23rd. Traditionally the 23rd, 24th 25th and 26th of December are the main celebrating days but in many houses Santa Claus begins his visits on the 11th of December.
Or should I say Santa Clauses? There are actually 13 of them! They all have different names, characteristics… and bad manners. Doorslammer likes to slam doors, Candlesnatcher steals candles, Windowkeeper peeks through windows and Sausagefetcher steals sausages! But they can be nice to and will leave small presents in your shoe if you place it on your windowsill. Above all don’t forget to ask for new clothes on your Christmas list and make sure to get at least a pair of gloves otherwise you take the chance to be eaten by the Yule Cat! This giant cat called Jolakotturrin has sharp teeth and yellow glowing eyes and will devour you if you don’t wear something new!
A new Santa Claus arrives every day from December 11th till Christmas Eve and then they go back to their homes one by one until January 6th. Finally, Icelanders celebrate the end of Christmas season when the last one is gone, lighting bonfires and setting off fireworks. Just feel free to adopt one, two or more of these joyful Icelandic customs and get in the mood for step two.
Step two: time to bake
You can of course buy Icelandic cookies online but it will of course be more fun to gather the whole family and bake together. When it comes to cakes and cookies any gingerbread house or Christmas cooky recipe will do but if you want to stick to traditional Icelandic ones look for Sara, Laufabraud or Pipakokur recipes. A Sara is a delicious sweet made with a meringue or macaroon base filled with a chocolate cream and topped with a beautiful chocolate glaze. Laufabread means Leaf Bread and is made of thin round pieces of bread dough. The whole family gathers around the kitchen table to cut lovely winter patterns into them before deep-frying them. They usually are eaten with the traditional smoked lamb served for Christmas Eve. Pipakokur are delicious pepper and spices biscuits and children love to lend a hand to decorate them with colourful glaze.
Step three: prepare a huge porramatur
Porramatur is the “decadent” buffet filled with typical northern food made for Christmas Eve. Gravlax, smoked salmon, herring, leaf bread, rye bread, turkey, goose, reindeer, ptarmigan (a local game bird), liver sausage, or even marinated whale and seal fin… You don’t necessarily have to taste these last two but you won’t escape the must of any Porramatur worthy of the name, the famous Hangikjot. This is a smoked boneless leg of lamb served thinly sliced hot or cold on Icelandic rye bread or on Skonsur, a kind of thick pancakes. To quench their thirst Icelanders have an alcohol-free sparkling drink called Jola made with orange juice and malt. Play an Islensk Jol CD and the Icelandic Christmas carols will definitely create the perfect atmosphere.
Step four: gifts under the tree
Icelandic crime novels are now read worldwide thanks to talented authors such as Arnaldur Indridason, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Ragnar Jonasson or Arni Thorarinsson… Offering a novel is a popular custom in Iceland and everyone should at least have one for Christmas. Icelanders do have a passion for reading and in this small country there are more books published per capita than everywhere else in the world. Another option is to offer or ask for one of the iconic Icelandic handmade wool sweaters? They are amazingly beautiful and will last for decades. You will find a wide choice at www.icewear.is
We all have heard of the Blue Lagoon this wonderful outdoor Spa where it feels wonderful to swim in the hot geothermal seawater even in the heart of winter. If we can’t obviously have the real thing this Christmas we can nevertheless enjoy a real Blue Lagoon treatment at home. Go to www.skincare.bluelagoon.is and you’ll discover a wide choice of perfect Christmas gifts.
To make your at-home Porramatur you can shop online. For example, www.manni.is proposes a wide choice of Icelandic produce.
In other words: Merry Christmas
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos courtesy of Visit Iceland, Blue Lagoon or Icewear