Christmas: Meat jelly, the IKEA goat, and foods that start with Y
Translation: Julie Summers
Christmas. What a wonderful word. Christmas cookies, Christmas ham, Christmas movies, Christmas music, Christmas trees … The word “Christmas” means something different to each person who celebrates Christmas. Christmas is a religious holiday, a celebration of the birth of Christ, but it’s also taken on a much wider significance, and many people today celebrate Christmas even though they’re not religious. When and how people celebrate can vary dramatically from culture to culture, and holiday traditions can be anything from ordering Christmas dinner at KFC to placing your shoe in the window so the Yule Lads will bring you treats. Some families get together to bake Christmas goodies, while others go out to cut down the perfect tree. But Christmas traditions don’t just vary from country to country; they can even vary from family to family. Everyone celebrates in their own way and on their own terms. Most people can at least agree that the true meaning of Christmas is love, though some Icelanders may forget that in the midst of a shopping and cookie-baking frenzy. The Student Paper talked to a few students who were happy to tell us a little bit about their Christmas traditions.
Artúr Siuzev Guðnason – undergraduate, Film Studies
“My family and I are pretty traditional when it comes to Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we have glazed rack of pork and potatoes in a béchamel sauce. We listen to Christmas music and bake cookies, and if we’re lucky we have a white Christmas. I won’t lie and say that I usually go to church, because I don’t.
“My family is of Russian descent, so we also have Russian food around the holidays, such as holodets, a sort of meat jelly. I don’t eat that, though; I’m still a bit afraid of it. We also exchange gifts on New Year’s Eve, because in Russia the calendar is different and the holidays are from December 31 to January 10. The gifts are usually really small things, but it’s our way of keeping the Russian tradition alive, which I think is really important.
“I was born and raised in Þorlákshöfn and I always go home and have a cozy celebration with my family. There’s one fun tradition there. On Christmas Eve, the guys on the local search and rescue team dress up like the Yule Lads and walk around town delivering gifts. Anyone can contact them and ask them to deliver a gift. Let’s say you ask them to take a gift to Tumi. On Christmas Eve, the ‘Yule Lads’ will go knock on Tumi’s door and give him a present. ‘Ho ho ho, this present is for you, son!’ It really gets me in the Christmas spirit. Maybe I’m at home relaxing, listening to Christmas music and enjoying the festive smells coming from the kitchen, and then I look out the window and see the ICE-SAR truck. Grown men dressed as Yule Lads get out of the truck, smiling ear-to-ear. That’s when I know that it’s Christmas.”
Jónas Ingi Thorarensen – undergraduate, French
“I watch Christmas Vacation and Home Alone like any other idiot. Everyone should watch Christmas Vacation; it’s an absolute classic. If you really want to get into the Christmas spirit, you should read A Christmas Carol. I’ve read it every Christmas the past four years, ever since I got it. Maybe the latest thing I’ve found that gives me that Christmasy feeling is a cocktail called the Grasshopper. You mix together chocolate liqueur, peppermint liqueur, and cream. It’s absolutely delicious. And of course I keep up with the news in hopes that someone will light the IKEA goat on fire. It just has to happen! The burning of the IKEA goat is an important part of Icelandic Christmas preparations.
“Around noon on Christmas Eve, my mom and I always visit the cemetery and place flowers on the graves of my grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-grandfather. It’s a beautiful time, especially if it’s snowing.
“On Christmas Eve, we always have turkey. My dad might also cook a duck, but it depends on how many we are. If my brother joins us for dinner, we usually eat at 7:30 because he always comes late. It’s basically become a part of the Christmas Eve tradition. He’s always late. For dessert, we always have the one and only apple cake, served with whipped cream, of course. The recipe was my great-grandmother’s and is originally from Denmark. Making this cake is quite a production. It has to sit for two hours, and you have to constantly work the dough, but it’s all worth it, because you won’t find a better cake anywhere. It’s pretty heavy, but that doesn’t stop anyone from continuing to shovel it in. And around midnight on Christmas Eve, I usually tiptoe into the kitchen and help myself to seconds.”
Vigga Ásgeirsdóttir – graduate student, Psychology
“The best Christmas traditions are all about people. I’m in a jazz and Latin music band, Smáaurarnir, and for a long time we’ve met up every year for julefrokost, a Danish Christmas feast. It’s a wonderful Danish tradition that I’ve been a part of since 2005. Everyone in the group has a specific role. Our guitar player, Jakob, is the Dane in the group, so he cooks up the traditional Danish meatballs and gives the first toast. We have all kinds of typical Danish Christmas foods, like liver pâté, herring, Danish meatballs, and lax, and of course there’s plenty of alcohol, so everyone goes home feeling festive. We all take a ceremonial first bite and first sip together, and then we reminisce about old times and laugh. We meet around noon, but people don’t usually go home until after midnight, by which time they’re completely stuffed. I couldn’t imagine Christmas without these amazing people.
“For the last ten years, I’ve also had an annual Christmas party with my four best friends from secondary school, Unnsteinn, Inga, Auðbjörg, and Bergdís. In the early days, we just bought food at Múlakaffi, but now it’s become quite a sophisticated Christmas party. Every year we have a theme, not necessarily Christmas-related. We’ve had a tropical theme, for instance, and last year we had an Asian theme. I think the most fun and probably the most memorable theme was when we had everyone come with some sort of small plate to share. What made it difficult was that each person was randomly assigned several letters of the alphabet, and everyone was supposed to make their dishes with ingredients that started with those letters. It got pretty complicated, especially with letters like Y. It was definitely a challenge to put it all together and create something edible. But believe it or not, it all turned out really well.
“Someone in the group always has the job of finding a secret guest to invite. We’ve had old scout leaders, old classmates and friends, or other people that we all know somehow. One time we tried to get one of our old teachers to come, but unfortunately he couldn’t make it. People have arrived covered in sheets or in tents, and it always takes us a long time to guess who’s inside the shapeless heap.
“My favorite part of this tradition is going around the table and having each person say the best and worst thing that happened to them that year. So much has happened over the years. Four kids have joined the group, and all the couples except one have gotten married, so we’re just eagerly waiting for that last couple. So much happens each year and it’s fun to look back on it all.
“When the winter darkness sets in and I start seeing Christmas lights in my neighbors’ windows and I get a call from a friend who wants to start planning the annual Christmas party, then I know for sure that all the Christmas craziness is fast approaching.”