Christmas in Iceland – Watch out! The Yule Cat is coming!

Christmas in Iceland is in a way really special. Some of the Icelandic Christmas traditions are rather amusing. Let’s see what bothers Icelanders at this time of the year and what dishes appear on their Christmas tables. The Yule Cat, skata, leaf bread (laufabraud) and other traditions.

Christmas in Iceland is in a way really special. Some of the Icelandic Christmas traditions are rather amusing. Let’s see what bothers Icelanders at this time of the year and what dishes appear on their Christmas tables.


The Beast

In Iceland Christmas preparations begin in the clothes shops. In this case, it is not like in the other countries; definitely, it is not chasing the fashion or a simple desire to improve the Christmas image. Nothing of that kind! Icelanders turn to this with a great fear in their hearts. Everything because of an old, quite brutal and typically Icelandic custom. Everyone whispers about it with anxiety – ‘að fara jólaköttinn’, which means – ‘to become the Yule Cat victim’.

Maybe it sounds funny, but it’s not laughable at all. According to the custom, during Christmas everyone has to put on a new piece of clothing. You cannot ignore it because otherwise, you put yourself in great danger – you are in danger of being devoured by an extremely malicious beast called the Yule Cat.

A long time ago farmers told their workers that if they didn’t finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas, they would be eaten by the Yule Cat. These who did their best were rewarded with new clothes. And those who were lazy were the easiest Yule Cat target. Bloodthirsty and vicious monster belongs to the equally gruesome giantess Grýla. All Icelanders know this story and they try not to be the next victim of the Yule Cat. Well, this scenario could be somewhat troubling.

Delightful skata

In contrast to most other countries, Christmas preparations in Iceland aren’t full of pleasant aromas. Unfortunately, when Icelanders think about Christmas, they don’t have in mind the aroma of gingerbread and oranges, but a really disgusting smell of ammonia. In many Icelandic homes just before Christmas, you can feel a smell of fermenting rays, called skata. In the category of shocking stench, skata far surpassed even the controversial, fermented shark. And now imagine that the smell of the worldwide famous shark is incomparable with the much less known skata.

Christmas skates are caught in the autumn. Then they are pickled and left to ‘decay’. When someone is preparing skata, its unbearable strong smell is everywhere in the air. The person, who prepares it, immediately soaks in skate’s delightful aroma. After that the apartment must be aired for at least a week, so imagine what kind of odour we are talking about. That’s why some Icelanders try to reduce the smell in their houses by preparing the skate outside. There is a secret method which helps to reduce the smell. Some Icelanders, immediately right after they finish with the skate, start to prepare smoked lamb (hangikjöt). The odour disappears, at least to some extent. Skata is served with boiled potatoes and brown rye bread. Many people say that except for the smell, this is a heavenly meal.

In Iceland the Christmas dinner starts usually at six. On Christmas Eve Icelanders eat a hearty, warming up meat soup known as kjötsúpa. It is a traditional lamb soup with cabbage, turnips and grits. Many people consider it as one of the best cures for the winter depression. Another common and very popular meal this day is also already mentioned smoked lamb, hangikjöt. In the past in the poorest households, people prepared grouse, rjúpa, instead of lamb. These days everything looks different because rjúpa is considered to be a really gourmet dish.

In the old days, grain products were horrendously expensive in Iceland, so bread was a delicacy consumed very rarely. When the financial situation in Iceland changed and when the import of grain increased, Icelanders began to bake for Christmas pancakes and prepare delights known as kleinur. Soon kleinur and the other kinds of treats stopped to be associated with Christmas and were introduced into the daily diet of Icelanders.

Christmas in Iceland is in a way really special. Some of the Icelandic Christmas traditions are rather amusing. Let’s see what bothers Icelanders at this time of the year and what dishes appear on their Christmas tables. The Yule Cat, skata, leaf bread (laufabraud) and other traditions.

Cut-outs for foodies

One of the most unique things on the Icelandic Christmas table is laufabrauð. Laufabrauð, also known as ‘leaf bread’ or ‘snow flake bread’, is a flat, round, crispy bread with a neutral flavour, usually served with butter and smoked lamb. You won’t find it anywhere else in the world. What makes it so unique are delicate, intricate patterns which are cut out in the bread. It makes laufabrauð look like a little piece of art. The tradition was first mentioned in the records from the 18th century when flour was very sparse. That’s why they are so thin. It originally comes from North Iceland, but now it’s popular around the whole country.

To be honest, making this bread is a real challenge. Rolling out the dough is a very hard work (once it was said it should be so thin that you can read the Bible through it). For generations, men were asked to help with the rolling and cutting out the patterns. In the past, it was the only day in the year when men were active in the kitchen. Making laufabrauð is not a one person task. Icelanders often organise evening meetings a few weeks before Christmas, when all family members gather to make this traditional bread. Not only is it very tasty, but also it is a fantastic decoration of the Christmas table.

If you would like to try your hand at making laufabrauð, you can find the recipe below. We have to admit that we had some problems with rolling out the dough properly. It should be much thinner. Have fun and Merry Christmas! Gleðileg Jól!

Christmas in Iceland is in a way really special. Some of the Icelandic Christmas traditions are rather amusing. Let’s see what bothers Icelanders at this time of the year and what dishes appear on their Christmas tables. The Yule Cat, skata, leaf bread (laufabraud) and other traditions.


Laufabrauð


Ingredients:

  • 3 ½ cups flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 4 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1 cup warm milk
  • 1l canola oil, for frying

Method:

  1. Whisk flour, baking powder, salt, sugar into a bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and add it to the mixture. Pour in milk gradually and form dough.

  2. Sprinkle a little flour on a breadboard and transfer the dough here. Knead the dough until it’s smooth (around 10 min.). If needed, you can add slightly more flour or milk. It should be stiff but still a little moist.

  3. Form the dough into a roll of around 5 cm (2 inches) in diameter. Cut a slice from the roll (you should get around 25 slices from the roll). Cover the rest of the roll with a damp kitchen towel – it can’t get any dry. It’s very important to keep it that way.

  4. Roll out the slice into a circle. It should be really thin. In the old days, it was said that it should be so thin that you can read the Bible through it. Cut out a circle of around 18-20 cm (7-8 inches) in diameter. You can use a metal bowl or a pot cover to do it.

  5. Now the fun part begins – cutting out the patterns. It can be done either with a special cutting wheel (laufabrauðsjárn) or with a small knife. The cutting wheel makes it much easier, but it’s not that easy to get it abroad. Traditionally it was made using a pocketknife. We used a knife and it went fine. There are many traditional patterns, the most popular one is a star (or a snowflake). Working outwards from the centre of the circle you have to cut rows of V’s (you can see it on the picture above). Using a knife, lift the tip of every other V and fold it back, so that it touches the apex of the V behind it. Press it delicately to adhere. You can find a step by step guide here.

  6. Heat 5 cm (2 inches) of oil (traditionally sheep fat was used) in a big frying pan or a pot. Carefully put the bread into the oil. Fry on each side until it turns pale golden (just a dozen or so seconds). Lift it from the oil, let it drip off for a second and put it on a paper towel. Cover it with another piece of paper towel and press it with a pot for a second. When it’s completely cool, wrap it in plastic foil. It can be kept in a cool, dry place for at least several weeks. Enjoy!

Christmas in Iceland is in a way really special. Some of the Icelandic Christmas traditions are rather amusing. Let’s see what bothers Icelanders at this time of the year and what dishes appear on their Christmas tables. The Yule Cat, skata, leaf bread (laufabraud) and other traditions.

Comments (29)

Hahaha, I did not realise Iceland views Christmas so differently to many other European countries. To be fair, I would be concerned about Christmas as well if there was a beast on the loose and a rank smell of ammonia in the air. But the ‘leaf bread’ does give some festive cheer at least 🙂

Laufabrauð with a piece of smoked lamb and with butter is really good. Icelanders bake in this time also a special cake. It is called ‘jólakaka’ (Christmas cake). They add to it lemon juice and raisins, gosh, it tastes heavenly 🙂

Sometimes I’m wondering if these traditions was created on Iceland or if it is something the vikings brought with them from Scandinavia. One thing is for sure, we do not have something that resembles some of these traditions left here in Sweden at least. I don’t know if the Norwegians might have some similar traditions though. 🙂

True, Icelanders have many jaw-dropping traditions. I think that Norwegians have less bizarre customs 🙂

Wow, I’ve never heard of any of these foods or traditions. Do kids growing up in Iceland look forward to skata at Christmas? Our American holiday traditions seem pretty mundane in comparison! We definitely don’t have anything equivalent to the demonic Yule Cat in our culture, though we do live with a pretty ornery feline that’s a pretty good guard cat.

Usually, kids look forward to Christmas gifts 🙂 I think that they don’t complain about the skata smell because in Iceland naughty people can find a rotten potato in their shoes as a gift 🙂 This is another interesting tradition.

It’s nice to know about the christmas traditions of different regions, looks like each one has a unique way of celebrating christmas. Iceland being one of them. I would like to try out that recipe sometimes. looks yummy

It’s yummy and it looks so nice. We made a special decoration from laufabrauð and we put it on our Christmas table. Our guests were delighted 🙂

I actually had no idea about any of this. My family is from Denmark and there is nothing similar as far as I know here with their christmas. The food looks really pretty and I will remember if I am ever back in Iceland for christmas to watch out for the Yule Cat. 🙂

Oh yes, you better do it, the Yule Cat is a clever beast 🙂 !

I love learning about other traditions around the world! Where do these things stem from? This was a fun read, definitely something different.

These celebrations are so different to the ones elsewhere. Very aromatic in its own way 😛 🙂 Trying to imagine the odour if it takes so long to go. The cutouts are well made and unique.

Oh Indrani, it’s better for you that you don’t know this smell 😀 Thanks God that Icelandic Christmas cake, ‘jólakaka’ smells better 🙂

I didn’t realise the Icelandic traditions around Christmas were so different than the rest of Europe or North America. I’ve heard of the Yule Cat, but I thought it was a fictional character in a child’s book or something. The Laufabrauð looks like it would be tasty and also the recipe is very easily veganised! We may give it a go!

Laufabrauð will cheer up every Christmas guest 🙂 It’s not so easy to make, but for sure worth to try!

It us always nice to learn new Christmas tradition, especially about one so far from home. By the sounds of it, Iceland has so much to offer at any time of the year. Now that I have the recipe, it is time to get cooking. Happy new year.

Anthony, Happy New Year for you too! We also love to read about Christmas traditions in other countries 🙂

Never heard of Laufabrauð, but I like all the ingredients. Iceland seems like an ideal place to spend Xmas. I feel like people around the equator aren’t really experiencing the real Christmas! What do you think?

I can’t really imagine spending Xmas in a tropical scenery. I completely agree that Iceland is a perfect place to experience the real, magical Christmas. In such fairy, snowy land you can easily feel the Christmas spirit 🙂

Great read! I do have to say that Christmass in Iceland sounds a bit depressing. Not sure what’s worse – the man eating cat or the stench of the fish 😀

But still, Icelanders love Christmas 🙂 Maybe Christmas aromas are not very welcoming and joyful here, but some people say that skata is really tasty. I didn’t dare to try 😀

I am a foodie and loved this blog. I have saved it so that I can try out the recipe later. Iceland seems like a magical place. I am sure Christmas adds more shine to its allure. I like festival foods, mainly because those are available during the festival weeks. It is the same in my country India.

I would love to spend xmas in Iceland. I think the bread sounds lovely – especially if it take so much time and effort to make!

Leaf bread is so cute! I thing I wouldn’t have the patience to do it though. I live in Buenos Aires and we start christmas dinner around 9 pm, so different!

I really fell in love with this Icelandic Christmas food guide. Do tell us how the dried skate tastes like? Where would we find restaurants that would give us an authentic Icelandic experience.

Never heard of these traditions. Great read. I would love to spend Christmas in Iceland.

I really like to know about Christmas Stories and traditions. This one about Yule cat is as great as disquieting. In Italy we have “La Befana” a witch that bring gifts to kids on January 6… if their behaviour was good during the year they receive beautiful gifts and a lot of candies in a giant sock…if not, they receive the sock full of carbon ehehe…When I was a child I was completeley scared about this figure, but it’s not comparable to Yule cat :D.

Another wonderful post on Iceland. More I read these posts in this blog, more I start wondering whether I should have been born in this country. From food to festivals, there is a quirk in everything here.

Omg Christmas is one of my favorite times of year! We actually planned on going to Iceland right after Christmas but decided to do London instead! Those cut out cookies look amazing but that ammonia smell would be way too much. Like some girl dyeing her hair for too long ???????? either way, really cool to see!

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