Frikirkjan and National Gallery, Reykjavik.
Christmas celebrations in Iceland, a nation that can never be accused of partying half-heartedly, extend over twenty-six days. During a period of just over three weeks, not one Father Christmas but a succession of thirteen Jólasveinar or Yule/Christmas Lads arrive in, and leave, town one-by-one. This piece of folklore is variously commemorated on cards and postage stamps, and is accompanied by songs, dances and stories, much of which is captured on national television. Small, well-behaved children hope to receive a gift from each of these visitors, culminating in a more significant present from the final Lad, Kertasníkir (Candle-beggar), on Christmas Eve itself.
In origin the Lads are somewhat sinister figures, who have only recently been recast to resemble Father Christmas/Santa Claus, swapping farmer’s dress for bright red clothes and white beards. According to old legends, they were sent to town in the winter to search for fresh meat for their mother, Grýla, a troll who feasts on raw human flesh. The family cat, Jólaköttur, also likes to eat poor children.
The Lads’ names, including Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-thief), Askasleikir (Bowl-licker), and Skyrgámur (Skyr [Curd]-glutton) evoke the fears of a not-too-distant past, when most Icelanders lived at or around subsistence level and a cold winter meant that starvation of livestock and, sometimes, the people, was a real possibility.
Reykjavik’s bars and coffee shops remain full but particularly in the suburbs an increasing number of 4x4s are left at home in favour of cheaper-to-run vehicles, and the queues for Red Cross food parcels are also growing as the economic crisis takes its toll.
Iceland’s financial markets, and with them, its currency, have fallen into the proverbial abyss. Cheap geothermal power and other modern technologies mean that a return to the darkest days of the past is unlikely, but nonetheless I suspect that the bleak connotations of their Christmas traditions have a new-found resonance for many Icelanders this year.