The Yuletide season today is very much a family affair. The family decorates the house and tree together and spends a great deal of time at home. Family gatherings are a main feature of Icelandic Yule. The season consists of:
‘orl‘ksmessa - St. Thorlakur's Day - December 23rd Iceland's major native Saint is heilagur ‘orl‘kur ‘‘rhallsson, or St. Thorlakur Thorhallsson, Bishop of Sk‘lholt. He has two days dedicated to him: December 23rd, which commemorates his death in 1193, and his other day, July 20th, which celebrates the exhumation of his bones. The main custom associated with ‘orl‘ksmessa is the partaking of a simple meal of skata or skate. This custom, which originated in the West Fjords, has become traditional all over Iceland. The Yule tree is usually decorated on this evening. This is also a big shopping day for last minute gifts, with stores remaining open until midnight.
J‘l - Yule/Christmas
Celebrations start in Iceland at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Yule Eve. This may have descended from the old days, when a new day began not at midnight but at 6pm. Thus in Iceland there are thirteen rather than twelve days in the Yuletide season. There are also many traditional stories and much seasonal folklore. The J‘lasveinar or Yuletide Lads and their parents Gr‘la and Leppal‘‘i are the most popular seasonal characters.
Traditional Yule food is Hangikj‘t, smoked mutton. In times past a sheep was often slaughtered before the beginning of the Yuletide season and a rich Kj‘ts‘pa or mutton soup served. Another traditional delicacy, the Rj‘pa or rock ptarmigan, started out as the poor man's dinner but is now an expensive meal. Grautur, Porridge, on the other hand, was in past times a delicacy in Iceland because of the scarcity of grain. Another Yuletide specialty is Laufabrau‘ or leaf bread. This is very thin sheets of dough cut into intricate patterns and fried.
Christmas gifts, Yule presents, were rare until late in the 19th century. Summer presents were much more common, though everyone in the family received a new item of clothing either before or at Yule. The new clothing was a sort of bonus for work well done. Tradition has it that those who did not receive a new garment would be captured by the J‘lak‘ttur or yule cat.
A‘fangadagur - Christmas Eve/Yule Eve
A‘fangadagur is the day that all Icelandic children await impatiently, as after the evening meal they can open their Yule presents. TV transmission stops in Iceland around 5 p.m. on A‘fangadagur and only restarts at 10 p.m. Usually the family listens to Evensong on the radio then partakes of the evening's meal. Only then are presents opened and, according to the children, the real Yule begins. It is usually the immediate family that spends A‘fangadagur together.