Öskudagur Festivities Persevere on a Cold Spring Day

öskudagur iceland

Öskudagur, or Ash Wednesday, is an important holiday in Iceland. Like many holidays, it originated in the Catholic Church, but has taken on a life of its own in recent years. 

The traditional start of lent, Öskudagur takes place seven weeks before Easter. As such, it takes place on different days each year, falling between February 4 and March 10. To mark the beginning of the traditional fasting season, Icelanders indulge in choux pastry buns known as bollur the day before.

The celebrations over time have also evolved to include what is now known as Maskadagur, or Mask Day, when children dress up. In many ways, this holiday resembles Halloween, with children going between different stores on Laugavegur and singing for candy and treats.

The weather in Reykjavík today wasn’t the best, so children throughout the city headed to malls instead. 

Another notable tradition this time of year relates to the wands children make on Bolladagur. It is believed that the tradition originated with a wand used by a priest to spread ashes on churchgoers on Ash Wednesday. During the Reformation in Iceland, the more dour Catholic traditions slowly changed into an occasion for fun and mischief.

A Different Kind of Ash Wednesday

Today marks Ash Wednesday, a holiday celebrated across Iceland during the Lent season. Ash Wednesday traditions in Iceland are somewhat similar to Hallowe’en traditions in North America. Children in Iceland dress up in costumes for the holiday and sing to receive candy. This year, Icelandic health authorities have issued guidelines for celebrating the holiday while keeping infection prevention in mind.

There are records of Ash Wednesday celebrations in Iceland as early as the beginning of the 19th century. Kids have been dressing up for the holiday for most of the 20th century. RÚV footage from 1967 shows children in Akureyri in costume and playing traditional games on the holiday.

Health authorities’ guidelines include the following:

  • Celebrating the holiday within your close environment: at home, in school, at children’s recreational centres and community centres.
  • Dressing up regardless of your age to bring some fun into your daily routine.
  • Reviving old traditions like öskudagspokar, a game involving pinning small bags on others, as well as the barrel game (seen in the 1967 video linked above) while keeping infection prevention in mind.
  • If children will go from house to house in search of candy, authorities encourage parents to check in advance where children will be welcomed.
  • Those giving candy are encouraged to only distribute candy that is individually wrapped.