Iceland Celebrates First Day of Summer Today Skip to content
First day of summer Iceland
Photo: Golli.

Iceland Celebrates First Day of Summer Today

Today is the First Day of Summer in Iceland, an official holiday in the country and a tradition that can truly be considered unique to the nation. In the old Icelandic calendar, the First Day of Summer (Sumardagurinn fyrsti) likely marked the beginning of a new year, which Icelanders celebrated by giving presents centuries before the tradition of Christmas presents became widespread.

Old Icelandic calendar lives on in holidays

“We are the only nation in the world that’s celebrated its own particular first day of summer for 1,000 years,” explains ethnologist Dr. Árni Björnsson. “Our ancestors created their own calendar before they knew of the Roman calendar. They split it into two halves: summer and winter.” Even after the Roman calendar was adopted in Iceland in the mid 11th century, the old calendar continued to be used – until the early 20th century, says Árni, “many people didn’t know what day of the month they were born, rather which day of which week of the summer or winter.” The First Day of Summer is one of a few holidays from the old calendar that is still celebrated today.

There are clues suggesting that the First Day of Summer was considered the first day of the year. Ancient Icelanders calculated people’s age by the number of winters they had lived through, a practice that is still upheld in the countryside with horses and other domestic animals.

A bit like Christmas and Valentine’s Day

Though birthday and Christmas presents have mostly eclipsed them today, Icelanders still give “summer presents” on the First Day of Summer, a tradition that predates Christmas presents by at least several hundred years. “The oldest written example of a summer present is from the 16th century, from Bishop Gissur Einarsson at Skálholt, who wrote in his journal that he was choosing summer gifts for his household. But the tradition might be hundreds of years older,” Árni explains.

Though the summer present tradition declined in popularity in the 20th century, Árni says many Icelanders have embraced the tradition anew and kept it going, “myself included!” These days an Icelandic child could expect to receive an outdoor toy, such as a ball or a box of street chalk, on the holiday. The First Day of Summer was also called Maiden’s Day and known as a day when young men could profess their love to their sweethearts.

Summer weather

While the first day of summer marks the beginning of the season, Icelandic residents often have to wait many more weeks for balmy weather. Although winter is “officially” over, it is not uncommon to have snow, hail, or freezing temperatures across the country on the holiday. On the First Day of Summer in 1949, the highest recorded temperature in the country was -0.2°C (31.6°F), and Reykjavík was blanketed with 4cm (1.6in) of snow. Yet even bad weather can give reason to be hopeful – some Icelanders used to believe that frost on the eve of the First Day of Summer was an omen of a good summer ahead.

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