From the archive: In this 1972 article from Iceland Review magazine, Folklorist Árni Björnsson delves into the superstitions surrounding the First Day of Summer, a holiday unique to Iceland. Note that this archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.
Since olden times the First Day of Summer has been a day of celebration in Iceland – and it is not surprising that Summer should be warmly welcomed in the far north, for a good summer and national prosperity often go together. Formerly, when the Icelanders lived mainly by farming, their well-being was directly dependent on a good summer. But although the national economy nowadays is not greatly dependent on the number of hours of sunshine as before, a fine summer is very important to everyone – young and old alike. Although winter is often good, exhilarating and beautiful – and people enjoy it in their own ways – the Icelanders long for the summer (at any rate in their subconscious) during the whole of the dark period of winter. Today the First Day of Summer is primarily a holiday for the children, yet the adults are no less joyful when the grass begins to turn green and the summer birds make their voices heard. Nowadays, it is mainly the awakening of nature, the light and the fine weather that appeal to people. But the echo of bygone days still contains something of the customs and superstitions that were associated with this turning-point in the year. Most of this has vanished from the modern world; it is retained in the childhood memories of the generation now leaving us and in books, for the future. The following article describes some of the things formerly connected with the First Day of Summer in Iceland.
Old Icelandic time reckoning is, in some respects, unusual. The year was divided into two half-years, summer and winter. Normally the weeks were counted, not the months. Thus winter was usually 25 weeks and 5 days, and summer 26 weeks and 2 days. This made only 364 days, and after an interval of some years a week had to be added to summer for correction. These rules were established already in the 10th and rectified in the 12th century.
Among the common people, especially in the country, this method existed side by side with the official Christian time reckoning, and is still practised by old farmers. The months, January, February, etc., were no part of time reckoning among the ordinary people in Iceland until the 18th century.
In old time reckoning summer begins on the first Thursday after April 18th; in the Julian calendar, which was valid in Iceland till the year 1700, it began on the first Thursday after April 8th. There is no proof that this system was used elsewhere in the world, but we must suppose that at least certain elements of it were in use in Northern Europe before the introduction of Christianity and the settlement of Iceland. The term ’’First Day of Summer” appears in Norwegian documents from the 14th century. In Iceland we see this expression in the law manuscripts from the middle and the second half of the 13th century onwards. It is also used in all printed calendars from the 16th till the 20th century. However, in the older sources there are no signs of any festivity in this connexion, and this was also not to be expected, but in a well-known description of Iceland from the middle of the 18th century it is said to be the duty of each house-master to give his people the best food available on this day. In folk tales and memoirs from the 19th century the day always appears as a traditional popular feast, usually next in importance to Christmas. Actually this day is the Ice landic counterpart to European Spring Festivals.
Here follow some results of a research, which was under taken in 1969 to find out how the First Day of Summer was celebrated throughout the country. Taken as a whole, the outcome ought to give a fairly good survey of the customs around and just after 1900. The purpose was, among other things, to find out, whether there were any major differences between the various regions in this field. A priori this was not particularly likely, since isolated areas are really very few. People also used to move not a little from one place to another, for instance for seasonal work such as fishing, etc.
Most people did not pay any great attention to the dreams they had on the first summer night, and the few who consider this night remarkable in this respect are almost all from the eastern part of the country. Many more people took notice of the dreams they had in the last weeks of winter. They were thought to be meaningful as to the weather in the coming summer. For instance, red animals meant heat or rain, white ones snow or even pack ice.
The first migratory birds were given close attention. Most people believed that winter’s hardships were over when the song of the whimbrel was heard. With the snipe it was important in which direction it was first heard. From east and south it promised good, from west and north the opposite. The attitude towards the golden plover varies greatly. In the south and west of the country it was considered a bad omen if it arrived early, but in the north and east it is a welcome guest, no matter how early it arrives. It was considered undesirable if grassfields showed signs of becoming green early, for instance as early as March. Such early growth was not expected to be long-lived.
The custom to give presents on theFirst Day of Summer seems to have been more common than the custom of Christmas presents. Most summer presents were home-made things. On the south-west coast fishermen used to give their wives all the fish they caught on that day, for their private use.
Generally people expected bad weather near or just before the beginning of summer. Snowstorms at this time had different names. One was called the Ravenstorm, 9 days before First Summer Day, because by this time the raven was thought to have laid its eggs. Some people believed that if they could see that the raven had eaten its own eggs, extremely bad weather was to be expected. If Easter was late, i.e. near or after First Summer Day, it was feared that the Easter storm might unite with the Summer Day storm. Most people hoped for better weather when such a storm was over, except in the north-east, where they seem to have been more pessimistic in this respect.
People observed the ’’summer moon” in the following way: The first time you saw the new moon after the First Day of Summer, you should keep your mouth shut until somebody addressed you. What then was said to you, was a sort of an oracle. An engaged girl had seen the summer moon. She went indoors and sat down on a chair. Somebody said to her: ’’Beware, he (the chair) is shaky”. The boy betrayed the girl that very summer. This was called ”to get an answer in the summer moon”.
Food and drink
House-wives tried their best to mark the day with something special in food and drink, but too often there was not much left of the winter supply. In the northernmost part of the north-west people used to put aside some delicacies in the autumn and keep them in a closed barrel till the First Day of Summer. These were smoked lamb and other sheep products which had either been smoked or conserved in sour milk. Fresh meat was rare, except veal now and then. Choice parts of halibut were also coveted. Also coffee and sweet cakes, when such luxuries were available. Summer Day cakes made of rye were a speciality in the north-west of the country. They were up to 30 cm in diameter and 1-2 cm thick. Each person on the farm got such a cake, and on the top of it meat, butter and other things. People used to eat a small part of it every day while it lasted. Strong drinks seem to have been most usual in the central regions of the north and east. On the south and west coast the skipper used to give a party for his crew, including alcoholic refreshments.
First summer night
Almost everywhere people observed whether the temperature fell below zero on the first summer night, i.e. whether summer and winter ’’froze together”. This was considered a good omen, most commonly because the sheep milk then would be rich and fat during the summer. Since thermometers were rare, people used to put out a plate or some other container with water in it, and then made their observations early in the morning. Another method, mentioned in folk tales, was to walk bare-footed around the farm houses in order to find out if the grass was frozen. This was not confirmed by any of the informants.
In most parts of the country the day was dedicated to young people, but it varies from area to area whether it belongs to boys or girls. In the west and northwest it belongs to young men, but in other parts of the country it is dedicated to young girls. Those, to whom the day belonged, were to help prepare the feast and, in the boys’ districts, they were to be the first to get out of bed in the morning and the first to go out and welcome summer. But it was considered wise for everyone to get up early that morning. This predicted the same habit for the rest of the summer.
Leave from work
In most parts of the country the day was a holiday, apart from feeding and milking animals. Fishermen used to go out fishing, but not as far as usual. At noon people usually put on their best clothes. Many people in various regions preferred to start some work, even if merely symbolically. Quite often they started fertilizing the home field. On many farms it was customary that the housewife visited the sheep cot on this day and inspected the sheep. This is explained by the fact that in olden times the sheep were milked and the farmer’s wife was responsible for the dairy work.
It was usual for the children on neighbouring farms to come together and play. Also grown-up people used the day for visits. Dances or other organized forms of entertainment were rare until after 1890, but after 1900 the newly founded Young People’s League made this day a sort of festival for whole districts with speeches, poetry-reading, singing, theatrical performances, sport and dancing. Today it is actually Children’s Day.
Clergymen used to preach in many churches on the First Day of Summer until the first half of the 18th century, at least in the north of Iceland. This was forbidden by the Danish king in 1744. But in practically every home people used to gather and listen to reading from the Bible or some sermon. Hymns were also sung.
This research is not comprehensive enough to allow us to attempt any division of Iceland into ’’cultural areas” in former times. It seems clear, however, that people’s customs were not so uniform as might possibly be expected, taking into account, for instance, the practical absence of dialects. On the whole, the difference between south and north is not so marked as between east and west.