Today is Þrettándinn (literally, the thirteenth) in Iceland, their equivalent of Epiphany marking the end of the Christmas season. Icelanders follow both the traditional Christian calendar to mark the season, and also a traditional calendar that specifically mark Yule. According to the church calendar the Advent season begins four Sundays before Christmas Day, with an Advent wreath and 4 candles marking the progress through Advent.
According to the traditional Icelandic calendar, Yule begins 13 days before Christmas, and on the eve of this day, children leave their shoes by a window so that the Yule Lads can leave them small gifts. The Yule Lads are the sons of two trolls living in the Icelandic mountains. Each of the Yule Lads is known for a different kind of mischief (for example slamming doors, stealing meat, stealing milk or eating the candles). The Yule Lads traditionally wear early Icelandic wool clothing but are now more commonly depicted in red and white suits. Each home typically sets up a Christmas tree indoors in the living room with most decorating it on December 11. In addition to the decorations, presents are put underneath the tree. It is also a tradition in many homes to boil skate on the 23rd of December. The day is called Saint Thorlak Mass (Þorláksmessa).
The end of year is divided between two days – the Old Year’s Day (Gamlársdagur) and the New Year’s Day (Nýársdagur). At the night of the former and morning of the latter Icelanders set off fireworks blowing the old year away and welcoming the new one. Thirteen days after Christmas (6th January) Icelanders say goodbye to the Yule Lads and other mystical creatures such as elves and trolls. There are bonfires held throughout the country while the elves, Yule Lads, and Icelanders dance together before saying goodbye until the next Christmas.
According to folk traditions and tales, Þrettándinn is gloriously weird: it is a time of talking animals, aquatic metamorphoses, naked dancing, supernatural gifts, and precognitive dreams. In some ways it is like Samhain in the Celtic world where the human and spirit realms come together for a time. These are a few tales and traditions:
Icelanders make the most of New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn, indulging their pyrotechnic sides: large bonfires are regularly held on both New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn. The bonfires celebrate all of the fairies and elves who are said to be departing on Þrettándinn, and many local celebrations elect Fairy Queens and Kings who lead ‘elf dances’ around the fire. Elf dance traditions may originate with a popular play called “Nýársnóttin,” or ‘New Year’s Eve,’ which was written by Indriði Einarsson in 1907 and first featured the King and Queen of the elves.
According to some local traditions, such as on the Northern island of Grímsey, Þrettándinn is known as “The Great Dreaming Night.” The dreams that you have on this night must be taken very seriously, as they may hold clues to the future.
On the evening of Þrettándinn, many folktales say that cows can suddenly speak. There are many variations on this story—in some versions, for instance, they specifically speak Hebrew. In one version collected by Jón Árnason, a cowhand hangs around in the barn after his work is done on Þrettándinn. Around midnight, the cows all stand up and begin to speak to each other in nonsensical rhyming couplets, which are supposed to drive anyone who overhears them crazy. The cowhand escapes before he fully loses it, but is unable to prove his tale to anyone the next day. In other variations, however, the cowman is not so lucky, and goes mad listening to bovine poetry.
There are many folktales about seals transforming into humans on New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn. In one variation, seals are actually the animal incarnations of an ancient Pharaoh’s army, drowned in the Red Sea while chasing Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt. The drowned soldiers became seals, but their bones remain much like human bones. So once a year, they become human, shedding their skins and dancing naked on beaches. In one famous tale, a man goes walking on a beach and sees many seal skins lying on the shore. He takes one home with him and locks it in a chest. Later, he discovers a beautiful naked woman crying on the same beach because he’s taken her skin and she cannot return to the sea. He takes her home, marries her, and they have many children, but he keeps the seal skin locked away so that she can never escape. One day, however, he forgets to take the key to the chest, and the woman retrieves her skin and returns to the ocean.
Þrettándinn is often thought to be the day in which fairies and elves leave their current dwellings and find new homes. In some traditions, residents walk around the home asking for the family’s continued well-being while those spirits who have arrived to come in, and those who want to leave go on their ways. Þrettándinn is a time to say goodbye to the spirits. As the fairies take their leave and the elves move house, so also the last Yule Lad leaves town. Iceland’s thirteen Yule Lads arrive one by one on the days leading up to Christmas, and then also leave one at a time on the thirteen days following. The last Yule Lad to leave is Kertasníkir, or “Candle Beggar.”
Traditionally, Þrettándinn is the last day for people to get their fill of Christmas decadence. So, Icelanders “burn out” Christmas by finishing off the remains of their candles, “eat up” the season by finishing all the leftovers, and “play out” the day with long card games.
During the holiday season, it is traditional for families to work together to bake small cookies to serve or give to guests. Most common are thin gingerbread cookies which are decorated in many different colors of glaze. Many families also follow the tradition of making Laufabrauð (Leafbread), which is a flat thin bread that is cut out using a special tool and folding technique. Here is a very good instructional video, with no voice over but plenty of visuals and quantities of ingredients given in English (and Spanish !!).