Iceland likely doesn’t rise to the top of your list when considering possibilities for Christmas and New Years. It’s winter. It’s cold and often plagued with winds and blizzards during its deep winter months. And it only has about four hours of daylight that feels more like early twilight that time of year. And yet, it’s precisely those conditions as well as its exuberant, unique and quirky holiday traditions based on Icelandic folklore that make the winter holidays in Iceland an unforgettable holiday experience.
Iceland isn’t the first destination that comes to mind as a place to spend Christmas and New Years. Yes, its THE place to visit now, but normal people venture there in the high season of summer and fall when you can circumnavigate the nation on the Ring Road. When all roads are passable, the temperature is pleasant and everything is open. On the downside, the airfare is more expensive, the accommodations aren’t cheap and the island nation is over run with tourists.
We’re going in the dead of winter when the temperature hovers at freezing and there’s only six hours of daylight. When its the low season and many of the rural museums and sights are closed. We’re going then because Iceland has quaint Christmas traditions and one of the world’s best New Years Eve fireworks shows, all research subjects for future travel articles I’m writing.
Of our ten days in the country, half will be spent Reykjavik and half will be spent seeing the sights outside the capital. For part of the trip, we needed a 4 wheel drive, budget accommodations for four outside of Reykjavik and some idea what’s open in the off season. For that I turned to a surprising and very helpful resource – Hostelling International Iceland.
Their website is filled with information including a country map of all the hostels, detailed information and links for each one, a comprehensive downloadable booklet, suggested trip itineraries and the offer to make all of your hostel and vehicle rental reservations. As I’ve been researching their possibilities, they’ve been responding within 24 hours to my various questions. How far between the hostels that are open that time of year? It’s on their website. What’s their advice about driving from Hostel A to Hostel B a distance away? They reminded me there’s limited daylight and suggested there would not be much open on that road that time of year. Do the hostels have a private room (for me) and dorm room for the three young adults who are part of my intrepid band of fellow travelers? Yes! What’s their recommendation about a travel guide? Their downloadable itineraries provide detailed information and they give you a travel CD as part of their service that explains the sights. What are the hidden fees? There aren’t any. They provide the reservation service for no fee and the vehicle pick up and drop off has no extra fees because some of our group is staying at their Reykjavik hostel.
We leave in two months. I’m looking forward to finally seeing the fabled northern lights, Elf School (more on that later), rural hostel living, hip Reykjavik, a glacier tour and the quaint Icelandic tradition of gifting books on Christmas Eve!
A theme is emerging in my December posts about how the Christmas holidays are celebrated elsewhere. Right below my Halloween birthday, the holiday season around Christmas ranks second on my list of favorite celebrations. Sometimes I’m home for Poulsbo’s very Scandinavian December and sometimes I like to venture further afield as I did here and here to experience the festivities elsewhere. It’s interesting how religion often shapes the most exuberantly celebrated days of the Christmas season, particularly in Catholic majority countries. In Ecuador, its Christmas Eve Day. While here at home, December 24th is filled with last minute shopping and the opening of gifts, Ecuador celebrates Christmas Eve with Pase del Nino, a religious procession from the neighborhoods to a central church or plaza in the city in honor of the birth of Jesus . The day culminates at Misa de Gallo, midnight mass or literally translated as Rooster Mass.
In Cuenca, Ecuador where I landed for a Christmas, the celebration is called Nino Viajero, “the traveler child”. It’s an all day colorful procession with 50,000 participants from Cuenca and the surrounding villages and over 200,000 spectators whose route passed the hostel we were staying in allowing a close street view of everything. Cuenca claims it is the largest Pase del Nino in all of Latin America. We (my peregrine son and I) got up early for the 10AM parade start assuming it was something akin to parades back home where people stake out spots early on the parade route. We hung out alone for a couple of hours. The crowd showed up just in advance of the procession.
The pase had women and girls in colorful dresses and elaborate hats riding horses, often adorned in their own equine finery.
Everywhere there were beautiful children dressed as shepherds and angels, some in the procession and others watching with us on the street.
There were Santa Clauses and dancers. Also lively brass bands. The procession is a combination of Catholic and indigenous traditions and has lately been heavily influenced by media. There have been years when costumed cartoon characters are part of the parade.
And there were food offerings – whole stuffed pigs, slabs of beef, whole roasted chickens and fruit and vegetables adorning floats.
The parade accompanies an 1823 statue of Jesus, the traveling child. Unique to Cuenca, their statue of the Christ child was taken to Bethlehem and to Rome for the blessing of the Pope in 1961 and has since been called the traveling child. The parade ends beyond a park in the central part of Cuenca late in the afternoon giving both participants and spectators a chance to go home to prepare for Rooster Mass.
It occurred spontaneously without any of the pressure that normally accompanies the buildup to and carrying out of the holiday season. And it happened in the most unlikely of places – a youth hostel in what was formerly the most violent city in the world – Medellin,Colombia.
I’ve blogged previously about my do-over in Palenque and the non-ending of the world celebration in Guatemala. Also the joyful five day Festival de Blancos y Negros in Colombia. Somewhere on that trip between confirming that the world was going to keep spinning in Lake Atitlan and getting covered with espuma in Pasto, Christmas Eve and Day loomed on the calendar. And my peregrine son, Zach had joined me in Guatemala to launch his own three month backpacking trip through Central and South America. We needed a place to land for Christmas enroute to southern Colombia.
Medellin, Colombia had been recently featured in travel publications as an up and coming place to visit and live. Formerly the 1980’s stronghold of Pablo Escobar, the head of the brutal Colombian drug cartel, Medellin had rebooted itself after the death of Escobar with a new reputation as a haven for expats and tourists. The city also knows how to celebrate the holiday season with an extravagant multi-million dollar show of holiday lights all over the city and along the Medellin River so we’d have something festive to do when the city closed down while families gathered for two days. I booked The Wandering Paisa, a hostel that sounded promising because its owners were two brothers from Seattle. It had a tiny private room with bathroom for me and a dorm for Zach allowing us to have our own age-appropriate hostel experience. I could retreat to my room with a book or sight see on my own while he hung out with the younger dorm crowd.
We arrived late on the evening of December 23rd and after dumping our backpacks, I checked out the hostel. Clearly and by a significant margin, I was the oldest guest. The group on the couch made space for me to watch Game of Thrones which they’d been binge watching all day and I’d never heard of. Someone asked if I wanted a beer and because I was sure there was no pinot grigio or pouilley fume to be had in the hostel’s tiny bar, I nursed the beer through two episodes of grisly deaths and a back story that everyone but me knew. I started feeling sorry for myself. It was Christmas and I longed for a tree, Its A Wonderful Life, caroling and hot buttered rum. Before Zach left to go bar-hopping with the hostel crowd, I told him I was going to move into a nearby hotel (one with a Christmas tree) the next day. We could meet for Christmas Eve dinner and to exchange gifts and anything else where he wanted to join me.
Late the next morning when the first of the late night crowd wandered into the kitchen, he informed me they’d discussed my plan to move at the bar the night before and decided it couldn’t happen. It was Christmas. They were young international travelers – all away from home. They needed a Christmas Mom. He promised I didn’t have to do anything; they’d do all the cooking for the Christmas feast. The Hostel Christmas Mom. Who could resist that?
On Christmas Eve Day I bought wine and table decorations. That night, all of us piled into taxis and went to the Medellin River to walk through the lights. On Christmas Day while a crew of them worked in the kitchen, I gathered mismatched tables and chairs from all over the building and decorated our makeshift long table. The Hostel Christmas Mom wasn’t about to be a slacker when it came to mothering on Christmas Day.
Everyone dressed in their cleanest, least wrinkled clothes for dinner – a non-traditional assortment of wonderful food washed down with copious amounts of wine. There were plenty of exchanged travel stories and jokes and good-natured teasing. There were multiple languages. There were toasts to the people who would be leaving the next day to travel onward and there were plans hatched by those staying on for things to do over the next few days – all with insisted invites for me to join them. No solo sight-seeing or book reading for me. It was lovely. It was a Christmas to remember. It still ranks as one of my top three Christmases. After dinner everyone left to head for the bars while I crawled into bed. The next morning I stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee and couldn’t find the coffeepot among the piles of dirty dishes. And so, while my hostel children slept, I filled up the sink with hot water and began doing dishes. Because, I was, after all, The Hostel Christmas Mom.