Icelandic Lamb and Holiday Hijinks

Icelandic Lamb is so ingrained in Icelandic culture that it’s not only the star of most Christmas dinners in the form of smoked lamb (hangkikjöt in Icelandic) but it’s also become part of Christmas folklore.

Christmas is Coming

One family of mythical creatures, trolls to be precise, features prominently in Iceland’s Christmas myths. The troll Grýla, her 13 sons the Yule Lads and their cat, wreak havoc on the Icelandic holiday season. While Grýla snacks on naughty children, in the nights leading up to Christmas, each of her sons visits the homes of Icelanders in turn, making mischief, leaving small gifts in the shoes of well behaved children and giving the rest rotten potatoes. And one mustn’t forget their pet, the Yule Cat, a giant vicious feline known to lurk behind snowdrifts waiting to pounce and feast upon those who haven’t received new clothes for Christmas.

Two of the Yule Lads, Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage Swiper) and Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) are known to be especially fond of Icelandic Lamb. Bjúgnakrækir is the ninth Yule Lad to make his way down from the highlands. He steals bjúgu, traditional Icelandic sausage. And if the twelfth Yule Lad, Ketkrókur, has his way, he’ll make off with your hangikjöt, leaving you without a centerpiece for Christmas dinner.

You might think that because the first of the Yule Lad heads home to the mountains on Christmas Day, and the others follow suit one by one after having had their holiday fun at the expense of Icelanders, that all soon return to normal, but you would be wrong.

New Year’s Eve and the 13th day of Christmas

Come New Year’s Eve and the 13th day of Christmas (January 6th), even stranger things are known to happen, at least if folklore is to be believed.

It is said that on New Year’s Eve cows gain the gift of speech and wisdom. You wouldn’t be faulted for wanting to know what the cows have to say, but it is said that those who eavesdrop on cows on New Year’s Eve will go mad. I suppose a cow’s wisdom is simply too much for mere humans to fathom, but surely the wisdom of an Icelandic Lamb would do no harm.

All during the holiday season, elves or huldufólk (hidden people) as they are sometimes called, leave their abodes in the many rocks and stones that dot the Icelandic landscape, and migrate to new ones. During their migration, they are known to prophesy. To hear their prophecies all one has to do is climb to the top of a hill or mountain from which you can see four churches. In the world of the elves, this is considered a crossroads. Once you get there you must sit and wait. As the legend goes, elves come from all directions and ask you for

this and that, offering silver and gold, all sorts of treasures, drinks, and delicacies, but do not be tempted. It’s important not to accept anything you’re offered, for those who accept will lose their minds that very night. It’s even said that the elves can take on the shape and appearance of a close relative but don’t be fooled. You must deny everything that is offered if you are to maintain your sanity.

There is a difference of opinion as to when is the best time to meet the elves and hear their prophecies. Some say it’s Christmas, others say New Year’s Eve or the 13th day of Christmas. It’s probably best to try your luck on all three days, just be sure, and bring a bit of hangikjöt to share with the elves as you wait on the hilltop.

There was a time when it was customary on New Year’s Eve to light a candle in a window and leave a plate of delicious food out for the huldufólk so they may have a bite to eat on their way to their new homes. And it was even said that young men and women could see their future wife or husband if they sat in a dark room on New Year’s Eve and gazed into a mirror. Certainly, a plate of Icelandic Lamb would be needed to keep up one’s energy on a dark winter’s night.

Even the dreams dreamt on the nights of the 13th day of Christmas and New Year’s Eve are said to hold more portent. It’s probably best to eat plenty of Icelandic Lamb on both nights to ensure a good night’s sleep and the dreamiest dreams.

To fully experience the holidays in the Icelandic tradition and avoid any seasonal mishaps, it is best to have plenty of hangikjöt, and Icelandic Lamb in all its forms, on hand. It’s just delectable enough to satisfy the appetites of the mythical and real alike.

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