Inside Icelandic Christmas: From yule lads to the Christmas cat, it's a magical time of year

The holiday cheer is in the air and people are grabbing their tinsel, mistletoe and fermented fish. While not everyone is grabbing the fermented skata to serve their guest, it’s a great delicacy in Iceland and part of their Christmas traditions.

‘In Iceland at Christmastime it’s a little different than New Iceland,’ Winnipegger Jenna Boholij says

People attend the lighting ceremony of the Christmas tree in front of the Domkirkjan, Reykjavík Catherdal, in the city center of Reykjavík, Iceland, 29 November 2015. The tree was an official gift from the city of Oslo, Norway. (Anton Brink Hansen/EPA )

Holiday cheer is in the air and people are grabbing their tinsel, mistletoe and fermented fish — at least in Iceland, where fermented skata and other delicacies are part of Christmas tradition. 

Winnipegger Jenna Boholij explored what Icelandic Christmas is like for Lögberg-Heimskringla, a newspaper about Icelandic people around the world.

"In Iceland at Christmas time it's a little different than New Iceland," Boholij said on CBC's Weekend Morning Show, referring to the area on the shores of Lake Winnipeg where Icelanders settled Manitoba. 

Sharing food with family and friends is a major part of the holidays but instead of the turkey dinner, in Iceland people sit down with the putrefied fish, ham and special Christmas ale. They've also been known to dabble in some smoked puffin or reindeer paté.

"The typical Icelandic thing to do is kind of eat any animal that's available on the island," Boholij said with a laugh.

In Manitoba, the Icelandic population tends to eat a layered prune cake called vinarterta but Boholij said it's actually not as popular in the homeland.

For holiday traditions people hang similar decorations around their homes, but in Iceland there is a special candle-type decoration which is put in the window and on the mantle of the fireplace.

"Definitely an important thing that Icelanders like to get is a book. It's traditional that on Christmas Eve everyone gets a new book to go to bed with," Boholij said.

In a turn that's a bit more terrifying for the average Canadian, Iceland has yule lads instead of Santa Claus. In the 13 days leading up to Christmas, the yule lads, which are mischievous elves, visit children.

"The kids put their shoes in the windowsill and if you are a good kid they will leave a gift for you in the shoes and if you are a bad kid they will leave rotten tomatoes," Boholij said.

It sounds innocent enough until the elf Meat Hook comes to visit. That elf comes to grab meat left out with a "a long, sharp hook" Boholij explained. Other elves include the Door Sniffer, who has a huge nose and steals baking, the Window Peeper and the Spoon Licker, who does what his name says.

"There [are] some pretty amazing names," Boholij said with a laugh.

The yule lads aren't the only visitors during the Icelandic holiday season. Grýla, a giant and the yule lads' mother, comes to town from the mountains to terrify children. A holiday feline friend also stops by.

"There is the Christmas cat. It goes back to the old farming days and it kind of evolved," Boholij said.

"Basically if you don't get new clothes to wear on Christmas then you run the risk of being eaten by the Christmas cat."

While it might sound strange outside of Iceland, Boholij said it's the most magical time of the year. To follow the yule lads' visits, follow the Icelandic Festival Manitoba as it tweets about each elf starting on Monday.

With files from CBC's Weekend Morning Show