Today is the last day before Christmas, known as Þorláksmessa (‘The Mass of St. Þorlákur,’ Iceland’s patron saint). The day is celebrated by eating skata, putrefied (or fermented) skate, and buying the last Christmas presents.
According to a December 2014 survey, almost 40 percent of the nation eat skata on Þorláksmessa.
Þorláksmessa is celebrated in memory of Þorlákur ‘the Holy’ Þórhallsson, who was Bishop at Skálholt in Iceland in the 12th century. He died December 23, 1193, which became a holiday in 1199. In 1985 Pope John Paul II appointed Þorlákur ‘the Holy’ as the patron saint of Iceland.
The Catholic Church is the third largest religious community in Iceland and nine Catholic churches offer services in various parts of the country.
The tradition of eating putrefied skate originates in the West Fjords, but is now common in all parts of the country. The fish delicacy is usually served boiled with potatoes, turnips and hamsatólg, melted sheep fat.
People who want to avoid bringing the stench of skate to their homes—it smells strongly of ammonia—order the fish at restaurants instead. Serving skate on December 23 is becoming increasingly popular at restaurants in Iceland.
Icelanders are known to spend considerable amounts of money on December 23, which is traditionally the last day of shopping before Christmas. To make sure everybody finishes their shopping in time for Christmas, stores remain open until at least 11 pm.
People who have finished their shopping often go downtown on the evening of Þorláksmessa to meet up with friends, admire Christmas decorations or go to cafés to have a cup of hot chocolate and exchange Christmas greetings.