The first settlers in Akureyri (the largest town in the north) were Helgi magri and Þórunn hyrna. Their story is a good record on the religion of the Icelandic settlers in general. Helgi magri (Helgi the slim) was both a Christian and Heathen. His farm had the name of Kristnes but on the way over from Norway he and his wife prayed to the Thunder God Thor for good weather and guidance to shore. Helgi continued to be a Christian on land and Heathen at sea. It was more convenient that way.
In fact, the Icelandic Christmas or Jól as it was called in Old Norse, come from a festive time in Scandinavia where people celebrated the winter solstice at the 21st of December. It was basically a huge drinking party that everybody took part in, even the slaves. For some reason it didn’t seem to matter how the landscape of religion changed, people never wanted to skip Jól, instead they adjusted it to their culture. History tells us that wars and fights between big families often originated in Jól parties when men had drunk far too much and made exaggerated statements of their capability, that then they had to follow through. In the effort to lighten the mood, we decorate our houses with lights and candles as they must have done at first to celebrate the arrival of the sun.
Today, there are two main beliefs of Santa Claus. One is the American Santa Claus who lives in the North Pole and has a reindeer sledge and happy helpers of elves. His trick is that he knows your every move throughout the year. On the other hand, there are thirteen Icelandic Jule Lads and their whole family of scoundrels, Grýla the mother that cooks naughty children, her husband Leppalúði whom she cooks them for and their huge black Christmas cat that eats the unlucky, poor children who don’t get a new piece of clothing before Christmas. It’s all very grim and manipulative in a psychopathic kind of way :)
But even if it sounds horrible, as a child, I remember enjoying the Jule Lads immensely. With time, those conniving thieves have become clumsy and funny. They sing a lot and let all the children sing along with them, taking their hand and dance around the Christmas Tree. And when I did meet them in person (at Christmas gatherings at school) I would be happy to receive just a mandarin as a present. At least, it wasn’t a potato!
But when they gave me presents at my house, I wasn’t as modest. On the 11th of December, we place our shoe in the window so each and every one of them can give us a little present at night while we impatiently wait for Jól. I believed, that the idea about getting a potato when one have behaved badly was just to scare. Oh boy was I wrong. I got it once. A potato. It was horrifying. Santa Claus really did see everything. And then he must have told the Jule Lads. I had an eerie feeling knowing that someone was watching my every move.
The last one, Kertasníkir or CandleStealer, is quite the businessman. He asks for candles, and depending on how many candles he gets, your present will be bigger. I learned that the hard way when my older brother put more candles in his shoes than me. I believed that Kertasníkir would treat us equally, because if he would have bothered to check his facts, then he would have known that no matter how many candles I put in my shoe, Björn would always find more to put in his, just to have more. I never had a fair chance. I finished Capitalism 101 at the age of seven.
Jól has gone through many cultural changes. It has gone through atheism, Heathen religion and is now stuck in Christian religion, gone from being a massive party based on equality of all to a hurricane of social class division and consumerism. But I bet we are now living the best changes. Somewhere on the planet it is mandarin season and all the mandarins get sent to Iceland. Whoever thought of that is a genius. I sincerely hope that the mandarins are the changes that will never change again.