Charming Season

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I find this time of the year one of the most charming periods of the year. Perhaps it is because I’m born on December 30. Thus when the year is finished I am also one year older – and hopefully a little wiser.

The days are getting longer, just a few minutes every day, although the long months of January and February are ahead with King Winter holding people and beasts in its strong grip. But this dark time of year has definitely its charms with all the Christmas lights on and festive traditions. And because my birthday is getting nearer I always start to think about my childhood experience of the days before New Year’s Eve.

There are two strong memories that always come to me. My grandmother in Ísafjördur lived in a majestic old wooden house. The house was built on a concrete cellar where there was a washing room, a storage room for my grandfather’s carpenter tools and a huge mossy rock. Instead of removing the rock, the house had been built around it and my grandmother claimed that inside it there were elves who we could not see. She maintained that she could feel them inside the house. They were kind elves, she said, very old and wise.

In Icelandic folklore the elves are another nation living in the country. Their habitat is rocks and cliffs. They are astoundingly good looking, wear colorful clothes and have been known to lure human beings into love affairs with them. Which is a liaison dangereuse, according to folk tales. But if elves and human beings live in harmony and help each other out it can make for a beneficial and fortunate relationship.

My grandmother often took me to the rock in the cellar and then she whispered and said we should not disturb the elves. Sometimes we brought food down and placed it on the rock. Of course she was lighting up my imagination with this but deep down I think she believed that the creatures lived inside the stone.

This is the time of the year when Icelanders acknowledge the existence of elves. This is also the hidden people’s favorite time of the year and they can often been seen at the turn of the year when they ride on their horses to visit other elf clans to celebrate the solstice. An old custom in Iceland is to burn the old year away and to celebrate the coming of light. Huge fires are built, called brennur and in Reykjavík and other townships thousands attend when they are lit on New Years Eve. Bonfires are also raised on January 6 and those are usually called álfabrennur or “bonfires of the elves.” Then people dress up in elf costumes to celebrate the final day of Christmas.

This folklore can be traced back to heathen times when the old Norse religion ásatrú prevailed.

Another strong childhood memory derives from the time when we spent the Christmas holidays on my uncle’s farm at the small island of Vigur. We had to get there with the post boat. At the time there was no jetty on the island and my uncles came to fetch us from the ship on a small rowing boat. The weather was often rough, the sea grey and threatening, the blizzard thick but we always managed to land safely on the soft gravel shore.

Christmas days there were quiet and extremely peaceful. My uncles did their farming chores with ease, milked their cows and tended to their sheep. One of the chores this season was to take the rams to the abiding sheep as it was their mating time. The sheep’s hut was about half a mile away from the farm. We walked there in all kinds of weather. When we came to the hut, where 180 sheep were waiting for their daily meal of hay and to be mated with a ram, two oil lamps were lit. It was an extremely gracious and calm affair.

I can still remember the moist smell of sheep feeding from the manger. I could not understand how my uncle managed to know all the sheep apart. Most he knew by name. Then an hour of mating took place after which the rams were exhausted. In this there was a feeling of an ancient tradition and the sureness of lambs being born in the spring to provide for the family during the hard winters of the north.

Then we went back to the farm and were graced by newly baked cakes and hot chocolate. At six o’clock on New Year’s Eve, which was also one of my uncles’ birthday, everyone sat down in the old living room, around a table which had a burgundy colored velvet cloth on it, candles lit, and listened to mass on the radio. It was a very holy moment, only interrupted by the occasional snore my uncles let out. They were tired from a hard day’s work which was carried out the same way throughout the year.

Such was farmer’s life in those days, and still is, although modern farmers might just have to restart their computers in order to have a peak into their cow sheds to see if everything is going all right with the milking robot.

Happy New Year and be kind to your house elves. Then everything will turn out well in the years to come.

BB – bjarni@icelandreview.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.