How Christmas Is Celebrated in Greenland

Winter night in Nuuk, Greenland

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Christmas is a festive time in Greenland and typical celebrations on the sparsely populated island range from well-known European traditions to holiday rites that are uniquely Greenlandic. Greenland is an autonomous territory with its own prime minister, but falls within the Kingdom of Denmark. As such, many Christmas traditions have been imported from Europe and nowadays have blended into a mix of both Scandinavian and local Inuit customs.

Food Traditions

Greenlanders cook up a special holiday menu for this celebration. On the festive table, you will find seal, whale, and reindeer meat, which are all locally hunted.

Two special meals typically eaten during Christmas are mattak and kiviak. Mattak is is a tough strip of whale skin, that often has to be swallowed whole because it's too tough to chew. Kiviak is made from a type of seabird found in Greenland, that is wrapped in a lining of seal skin and left to ferment for several months before eating. The description may not sound appetizing, but it's considered a delicacy in Greenland.

For dessert, warm treats are prepared to fight off the outside cold. Apple or berry crisps are popular, as is a special Christmas porridge topped with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

Christmas Traditions

The Christmas season in Greenland begins on the first day of Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas day. In Greenland, this is an important day celebrated in churches and homes. Local men may wear the white anorak, or tunic, typical for festive dates, while others may be in other traditional Greenlandic attire.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas in Greenland, colorful decorations are put up and illuminated Christmas stars hang in many windows.

Every village in Greenland adorns a lit Christmas tree on a hill, so everyone can see it. Whoever can afford to have a tree sent from Denmark—common Christmas tree species can't grow on Greenland—decorates it at home on the evening of December 23. Typical tree decorations include candles, ornaments, handcrafted items, and small Greenlandic and Danish flags.

Children go from house to house in traditional Greenlandic costumes singing their carols and it is, all in all, a truly magical experience. Keep in mind that there is little daylight in Greenland in December—as little as three to four hours. Despite the cold and darkness, it's a heartwarming time of year and there is plenty of holiday cheer. Plus, the long nights mean visitors have a greater chance to get a look at the Northern Lights.

On Christmas Eve, there is a popular church service that is attended by many in national Greenlandic dress or white anorak. After church, families return home to eat warm cakes and drink hot coffee, along with mattak and kiviak.

Presents often include traditional model sleds for children or locally crafted clothing.

Heading Into the New Year

Greenland quiets down at the end of December awaiting the New Year. The locals actually celebrate it twice! There's the Danish New Year at 8 p.m. Greenland time when Greenlanders watch fireworks on television from the mainland celebrations, and then the true Greenlandic New Year is celebrated at midnight local time. If you're lucky, you may even get to witness the Northern Lights to ring in the new year.