Christmas in Iceland 2000 - Main Page
Þorláksmessa - The Day of St. Thorlakur
by Johanna about 23th of December in Iceland
Pictures by Salvor Gissurardottir from the Skate lunch at the restaurant Naustid in Reykjavik on December 23th, 1999
In my parent's home and many others, the smell of hangikjöt cooking on Þorláksmessa is one of the long-awaited signs that Christmas is coming. But it is the skate that is the dish of the day.
Þorlákur was a 12th century Icelandic bishop, who was revered as the patron saint of Iceland after his death in 1193. He was (finally) canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1985.
There are two mass days dedicated to Þorlákur, Þorláksmessa in Summer, July 20th, and Þorláksmessa in Winter, December 23rd. The first marks the date his bones were removed from the coffin and put in a shrine, and the second marks the date of his death.
In past centuries fresh fish was a common food on Þorláksmessa in Iceland. The origins of the tradition of eating fish on Þorláksmessa is that this is the last day of the Catholic Christmas fast, and of course people weren't expected to eat meat on this day. The tradition continued after the country converted to Lutheranism, because this was a busy day, and food had to be quick and simple. (No work was done on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, so everything had to be ready by Christmas Eve.)
The tradition of eating this peculiar and smelly food (it has a strong odour of ammonia) arose in the West Fjords. The best time for catching Skate is in the late autumn, and the pickling and putrefying process takes a while to complete, so it would be ready and available around Christmas time. Therefore it was perfectly normal that skate would be served on Þorláksmessa. This tradition has slowly spread all over the country, and now there are many people who look as much forward to eating skate on Þorláksmessa as they do to eating hangikjöt, ptarmigan or steak on Christmas Eve.
In the village where I grew up, the crews of the trawlers and boats belonging to the local fishing company have for the past several years invited the population of the village to a skate lunch in the community hall, every December 23rd. Living across the street from the community hall means that if the wind is favourable, my parents will know exactly when the fish starts cooking!
As I have already indicated, this is an odiferous food, but it doesn't taste anything like it smells. The reason for this putrefying business is that in fresh skate (much like in shark), there are enzymes that can be harmful when the fish is eaten fresh. All I can say is that the person who discovered this must have been pretty desperate to get something to eat, because the smell is really horrible. I once went to the skate lunch with a nose so stuffed that I could neither smell nor taste anything, but when I was finished eating, my cold had disappeared. Powerful stuff!
At the skate lunch, two kinds of skate are served, one kind is salted and only slightly putrefied, the other salted and very putrefied. This is served in chunks, with boiled potatoes and a choice of two kinds of mör, the ordinary kind (melted sheep's tallow with burned bits of membrane - tastes better than it sounds), and hnoðmör (the same, just kneaded and allowed to go stale before eating).
Reproduced with permission