In Iceland the Christmas Season has traditionally been centred around food. It is a time when people eat a lot of good food and, here in Iceland, meat has generally been a mainstay of people’s diets during this season. During recent years the development has been such that it is not just during the thirteen days of Christmas that people enjoy good food, but rather that the “eating–fest” extends to include the period of Advent as well. At that time people flock to so-called “Christmas Buffets” where everyone can eat his or her fill of delicious food. Many people also bake different types of cookies for Christmas, and make leaf bread. In many homes people try out Christmas baking during Advent, snacking on wonderful home baked goodies, even though some like to keep the confectionary for Christmas. In the olden days the last few weeks before Christmas were called the “Christmas Fast” due to the Catholic custom of fasting at this time of year, and not eating meat. This term was used for centuries, in spite of the fact that no actual fasting took place. Today this term hardly applies as Advent is generally characterised by more eating than other times of year. It is, however, interesting to see that one custom related to the Catholic fast is still going strong, and this is the habit of eating skate on St Thorlákur’s Day (December 23rd). We offer a Skate Buffet here at Rauða Húsið at 12:00 and 18:00 on December 23.
There is a long tradition in this country of eating and drinking well over Christmas. There are sources that indicate that at the time of the Icelandic Commonwealth it was considered extremely important for people to have access to fresh meat at Christmas. For centuries every farmer who could afford it would slaughter a sheep before Christmas so that the household could have a taste of newly slaughtered meat. However, this depended on the farmer’s wealth, and not everyone could afford to lose a sheep at Christmas time. When this was the case the next best thing was put on the table: smoked food, such as smoked mutton, which later became one of the nation’s favourite festive foods, and is still considered an essential part of the Christmas table. Far into the 20th Century fresh fruit was only available around Christmas time, as it had to be imported from far away and only arrived in the country at that time of year. There are still people who can remember being given apples or oranges at Christmas, and just how tasty and exotic this was stays with them still. As the years have gone by, things have progressed so that just about every type of food is available all year round, and thus it is understandable that people eat whatever they like best at Christmas. Some common Christmas dishes include Rock Ptarmigan, Smoked Rack of Pork, Leg of Lamb, or Turkey, but there can be no exhaustive list as the possibilities are endless, and people’s tastes differ.
In the minds of many Icelanders, leaf bread is one of the specialities of the Icelandic Christmas. The oldest available source regarding leaf bread in Iceland stems from the earlier part of the 18th Century where the leaf bread is described as “the sweetmeat of the Icelanders”. It is believed that originally the leaf bread was mostly on the table of those better off and that it did not enter the table of the general public until the 19th Century. It was at times difficult to obtain the raw materials needed to make the bread, especially during the time of trade monopoly, and therefore bread and other grain products were only eaten by the genral public at holiday times. The tradition of leaf bread stems from this grim reality: a wafer thin piece of bread was baked at Christmas in order to make it possible for everyone to have a bite, as it says in the traditional poem:
At Christmas children should be given a bite of bread
Candlelight and red clothing so that they can get out of bed
The bread in this instance is thought to have been leaf bread. To make the bread more festive, beautiful patterns were cut into it. At the close of the 19th Century it was mostly in the north of the country that leaf bread was the festive bread of the general public, and it was only later that the custom spread throughout the country. In the north it was also customary for people to get together during Advent, and bake and cut patterns into the leaf bread, to get into the Christmas spirit.
During the first half of the 20th Century, housewives started to bake cookies and cakes in large quantities for Christmas. A likely reason for this is that at this time it was possible to obtain all sorts of raw materials for the baking and baking ovens had become common in most homes. Thus baking became easier which made baking all sorts of cookies and cakes for Christmas ideal. It is still common in many households to bake numerous types of cookies for Christmas and for many it is important that the cookies are homemade rather than storebought even though a great variety are available at the shops.
St Thorlákur´s Day Skate
Even though Catholicism was abolished in Iceland in the year 1550, the Mass of the Icelandic saint Thorlákur is still celebrated on his Feast day of December 23rd each year. Today, people mainly remember the Mass of St Thorlákur (or St Thorlákur´s Day) in connection with the preparations for Christmas, and for many it is traditional to decorate the Christmas tree on that day, or to do the last of the Christmas shopping. The eating of fermented skate on St Thorlákur’s day has also become an Icelandic tradition. Not everyone knows that this is really a remnant of Catholicism, when people fasted until Christmas and did not eat meat. For that reason, fish, preferably bad fish, was eaten the day before Christmas, when it was finally allowed to eat meat again. The tradition of eating skate came to the capital from the West Fjords around the middle of the 20th Century, but the skate was mainly in the West Fjords and in Breiðafjörður. It was never considered a great delicacy, but as the autumnal fishing season came to a close on St Thorlákur’s Day the eating of Skate became inextricably linked to this time in the minds of many people, and they considered it a necessity to eat skate the day before Christmas.
article courtesy of the National Museum of Iceland