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Christmas Traditions in the Nordics

By: Jessica
Last Updated: 06/01/2022

Do you love Christmas as much as they do in the Nordics? That is: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

This is the homeland of Santa Claus, where there's plenty of glogg ("mulled wine") to go around, and colourful lights twinkle all around you. Even the sky shimmers with the northern lights! So you can't help but get into the Nordic Christmas spirit here.

In case you want in on the Yuletide fun, read on for a taste of the local festive traditions and what to expect when you spend Christmas in the Nordics.


Icelandic Christmas traditions

In Iceland, there's no shortage of quirky holiday traditions to keep spirits bright. Of all the Nordic countries, Iceland is probably the most intense in its love of "Jólin" (Christmas).

You'd see decorations going up as early as November. For the next couple of months, the country is a flurry of sparkling lights and parties. Locals are shopping for new outfits, preparing the home, and baking gingerbread biscuits. Expect lots of biscuits!

December is a delightful time of year to visit the capital, Reykjavík. You'll sense the charming festive atmosphere in the city, particularly along the main street, Laugavegur. Locals tend to come here in the evenings for last-minute shopping and get-togethers with friends.



Christmas tree in Austurvollur, Iceland

Iceland's festive folklore

One of the more unusual Icelandic tales related to this season is that of the Christmas Cat ("Jólakötturinn").

This festive feline is more ghastly than cuddly, and is said to devour anybody who is not gifted new clothes for Christmas. Yikes! But what would you expect from the house cat of the ogress Grýla? She herself has an insatiable appetite for naughty children around the holidays.



It should also be mentioned that Grýla is also the mother of the 13 Yule Lads. These strange elves descend from the mountains in the 13 nights leading up to Christmas to wreak mischief and leave presents in the shoes of good little boys and girls.

Don't worry, Iceland has regular Santa too. You can actually visit his giftshop at the Christmas Garden near Akureyri in North Iceland at any time of year!

Reykjavik at Christmastime

Traditional Christmas food in Iceland

You should also know that Iceland has a reputation for some unusual food, and Christmastime is no exception. One particular delicacy you'd eat on 23 December for St Thorlak's Mass ("Þorláksmessa") is skata, or fermented skate. The taste and texture of this fish is similar to hárkarl, rotten shark, and the smell is definitely memorable.

Otherwise, traditional main courses you'll find at Christmas dinners are Icelandic smoked lamb ("hangikjöt"), salted pork ("hamborgarhryggur"), ptarmigan or goose. Don't miss the delicious, crispy leaf bread ("laufabrauð") and the Malt-Appelsín soda drink!



Scandinavian Christmas traditions

One of the great things about the region of Scandinavia – comprising Norway, Sweden and Denmark – is its shared cultural traditions. When you visit, it's also convenient that the word for Christmas in all 3 languages (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish) is the same: "Jul".

Swedish Christmas

In Sweden, the Christmas season officially kicks off with the celebration of St Lucia on 13 December. Attend one of these beautiful ceremonies and you'll see children dressed all in white, adorned with head wreaths and candles, singing angelic hymns.

At the centre is a young woman, the "Lucia bride", with a crown of candles atop her head. St Lucia day, though stemming from the Lutheran Church, coincides with the winter solstice of the old "Julian" pagan calendar. The event has come to symbolise the return of the light and new life in winter.



St Lucia celebration in Sweden at Christmas
St Lucia in Sweden ©Cecilia Larsson, imagebank.sweden.se

Danish Christmas

In Denmark, the seasonal focus is on hygge, which you may have heard of. Like fika in Sweden, this Danish concept doesn't have an exact translation in English. Hygge describes a sense of "winter cosy". Think candles, twinkling lights, hot beverages and basically any warm accent for the home.

Of course, there are many more reasons to love Denmark in winter. Town squares and shopping streets are decked out in Christmas trees, garland and fairy lights, punctuating the winter darkness with that warm feeling of hygge.

Plus you can visit enchanting Christmas markets in cities like Copenhagen. One of the best ones you'll find is at the charming Tivoli Gardens in the heart of the Danish capital.



Nyhavn at Christmastime
Nyhavn in Copenhagen ©Kim Wyon, visitdenmark.dk

Norwegian Christmas

You might assume that in the couple of days before Christmas, all the decorations would be up and everything would be ready for the big day.

But in Norway, 23 December is Lille Julaften (“Little Christmas Eve”), and it’s when Norwegian families decorate the tree together. They also tidy the house and bake gingerbread houses.

Then the big celebrations come on Christmas Eve, or “Julaften”, rather than 25 December. You’d enjoy a festive feast as a family and sing carols around the tree together.



Gingerbread house in Norway at Christmastime

Traditional Christmas food in Scandinavia

Oh yes, the food! It's not Christmas in Scandinavian countries without a "julbord", the traditional buffet. As Sweden, Norway and Denmark all have excellent seafood, you can tuck into a variety of pickled, spiced and marinated herring. Don't miss the different types of cold salmon, typically smoked or cured with dill seasoning.

In Sweden, a main hot course you could try is Christmas ham ("julskinka") or the classic "köttbullar", better known as Swedish meatballs. In Denmark, the emphasis is more on its national speciality: pork dishes, particularly warm liver patés with bacon and mushrooms.



And in Norway, typical foods such as pinnekjött (lamb "stick meat") and "lutefisk" (a lye-soaked whitefish with a pungent aroma) are classic additions to the Christmas table. Getting hungry yet?

This meal may be accompanied by beer and schnapps or wine. Another Yuletide treat in Scandinavia you may be familiar with is glogg ("gløgg" in Norwegian and Danish, "glögg" in Swedish). This mulled wine, infused with cinnamon and cardamon spices, is typically served at small parties. Why not try some for yourself?

Scandinavian Glogg
Glögg ©Helena Wahlman, imagebank.sweden.se

Christmas in Scandinavian countries keeps going all the way until the Epiphany on 6 January, which is treated as a bank holiday. So if you're travelling over this period, it's a good idea to check on opening hours of shops, restaurants and attractions beforehand.

You can read about public holidays in Norway on the Nordic Visitor travel guide.



Finnish Christmas traditions

Leave it to the Finns to be a little more unconventional than their Scandinavian neighbours in just about everything. While sharing many of the same foods and traditions as neighbouring Sweden, "Joulu" in Finland has its own distinct charm. What else would you expect from the home country of Santa Claus?

Santa and reindeer in Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland
Santa in Rovaniemi ©VisitRovaniemi

That's right, Rovaniemi – located in the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland – claims the title of Santa's hometown. It's here where good boys and girls (of all ages!) can visit the man in red at the Santa Claus Village. And you can enjoy other Arctic activities like dog sledding, reindeer sleigh riding, snowshoeing, northern lights hunting and more.



Finland's festive folklore

Of course, in Finland, Santa wasn't always the jolly old fellow we know and love today. Joulupukki in Finnish is also the name for the "Christmas Goat", a rather frightening goat-like creature wearing a mask and a pair of horns on his head in the old days. Eek!

Santa in Finnish Lapland at Christmas

But over time the Joulupukki story turned into an old man in a goat costume and, eventually, the gift-giving, reindeer sleigh-riding figure.

The modern Santa may drop down the chimney in other countries the night before Christmas. But in Finland he makes short home visits during family Christmas Eve dinners and knocks on the front door, like a gentleman.



Traditional Christmas food in Finland

Prepare for some delicious festive treats in Finland at Christmastime. Like the Swedish julbord, the Finnish joulupöytä is a rich assortment of cold and warm dishes you can try. This goes down very nicely with some "glögi"alcoholic or non-alcoholic mulled wine.

Round off your meal with the Christmas rice pudding (or "porridge"), flavoured with cinnamon, which often has a blanched almond hidden inside. Whoever discovers it in their bowl gets a small gift. You'd experience similar traditions in the other Nordic countries at Christmas as well.



Finnish sauna in winter

And, of course, it's not a proper Finnish Christmas without some Nordic wellness rituals! Before the evening festivities take place on 24 December, pay a visit to a Finnish sauna for a little purification of the spirit.

Parents might even tell their children to leave a little offering, such as a bucket of water, for the Saunatonttu, the friendly "sauna elf".



Get your Yule on!

If you love the idea of celebrating Christmas in the Nordics, we can help.

A specially arranged Nordic Christmas getaway ensures that you have a cosy place to stay during this magical season. And your dedicated travel consultant will plan festive activities for you on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (when many services are closed).

Plus you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experience the local food and Nordic Christmas traditions. You might even see the northern lights!

Nordic Visitor will arrange everything on your behalf, and you’ll have access to our 24/7 helpline during your trip. This way you can relax knowing that you have the support of local experts throughout.

Have something particular in mind? Get in touch with the travel experts at Nordic Visitor for your own tailor-made itinerary.

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Post by: Jessica

When not writing about Northern European tourist attractions, Jessica Bowe is busy daydreaming about her next trip or scouring Instagram for travel inspiration. Originally from Wisconsin (USA), she's lived in Iceland since 2008 and has since become fully immersed in Eurovision mania and Scandinavian coffee culture.

Find Jessica on LinkedIn.

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Getting there

We'd love to give you the same amazing travel experiences as you read about in our blog! To visit the destinations and attractions mentioned in this post - and to discover a few new highlights along the way - check out these recommended Nordic Visitor tours.