Iceland News Review: Welcoming the Summer

In this episode of Iceland News Review, we have some great predictions for the summer, presidential elections reaching a fever pitch, questions over the fate of fin whales, and more.

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From the Archive: The First Day of Summer

bee flower summer spring

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.

tjörnin pond reykjavík

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.

reykjavík botanical garden

Dreams

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.

Forebodings

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.

Summer presents

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.

Spring storms

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.

Summer moon

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”.

reykjavík botanical garden

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.

Dedication

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.

Entertainment

 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.

Religious observance

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.

“Good Spring Weather” Ahead Following Historically Cold March

According to long-term forecasts, this April could be one of the warmest on record. A meteorologist has told Vísir that warm air is expected over the country after the weekend, with “good spring weather” anticipated around the first day of summer.

A quick transition from the coldest March in 44 years

Temperatures have remained above average this month, marking a quick transition from the coldest March on record in 44 years. April could also become historic, albeit for happier reasons, according to meteorologist Einar Sveinbjörnsson who expects good spring weather next week.

“A predicted high-pressure area over the British Isles, along with milder air from the southeast, is expected to bring very mild weather in the coming week, potentially around the first day of summer,” Einar, who also forecasts the weather on the website Blika.is, told Vísir.

According to the Norwegian Meteorological Agency’s long-term forecast, temperatures could reach double digits next week. Einar preferred to remain grounded: “A temperature range between 5-9°C is considered good for the month of April – and if one can feel the warmth of the sun during this time,” Einar noted. He warned that if the trend of warm weather continues, April could be considered an extreme weather month, similar to April 2019, provided there are no sudden changes in the last week.

April 2019 was the warmest in many parts of the country since the beginning of measurements; the average temperature in Reykjavík was 6.5°C. Einar told Vísir that it was, however, too early to say whether this year’s First Day of Summer (Thursday, April 20) would also mark the actual start of summer.

“Cold spells with snow or rain can manifest themselves in this country throughout May and until June. But after this cold winter, it would be great to have a sunny and warm May to get rid of the ice from the ground and better prepare us for the arrival of summer,” Einar concluded by saying.

First Day of Summer in Iceland

Iceland

Today is Sumardagurinn fyrsti, or the first day of summer, in Iceland. This public holiday is observed every year on the first Thursday of April after the 18th.

The holiday is a throwback to the old Icelandic calendar, which was divided into two halves—six months of nattleysi (nightless days, or summer), and six months of skammdegi (short days, or winter). The first day of summer is the first day of the month of Harpa, which is also the first month of the year according to the old Icelandic calendar.

Screenshot, the Icelandic Met Office

The holiday may seem particularly ironic, given that the weather is often quite cold in Iceland in April, but tradition holds that cold weather is actually lucky on this day. That is, if the temperature drops below freezing on the eve of the holiday, summer and winter are said to “freeze together,” which bodes a good, warm summer. Read what you will, then, into the fact that temperatures around the country last night were close to, but not quite freezing, ranging from 3-7°C [37-44°F]. But at least the day off will be a reasonably pleasant one for much of the country, with sunshine and temperatures of 6-12°C [43-54°F] in the Westfjords, the north, and the east of Iceland. City dwellers, on the other hand, can count on a fairly warm day, 11°C [52°F], but will have to make due with overcast skies.

Be sure to check opening hours before venturing out today—many businesses will have shorter hours or closures in observance of the holiday. Strætó will run according to a Sunday schedule. The Bonús grocery store will have normal opening hours, as will Nettó, Krónan, and Hagkaup. Swimming pools will also be open regular hours.

Gleðilegt sumar!

First Day of Summer in Iceland Today

bee flower summer spring

Today, April 22, is a national holiday in Iceland known as the First Day of Summer (Sumardagurinn fyrsti). In the old Icelandic calendar, this holiday likely marked the beginning of a new year and was celebrated by giving presents. Despite its name, it doesn’t always bring Icelanders warm weather.

While winter is officially over according to the old Icelandic calendar, it is not uncommon to have snow, hail, or freezing temperatures across Iceland on the First Day of Summer. In 1949, the highest recorded temperature in the country on the day of the holiday was -0.2°C (31.6°F), and Reykjavík was blanketed with 4cm (1.6in) of snow. This year’s weather forecast for the holiday includes precipitation across West Iceland – rain in lowland areas and snow at higher elevations in the region. Temperatures will reach a high of around 10°C [50°F] during the day and around freezing at night.

A Holiday Unique to Iceland

“We are the only nation in the world that’s celebrated its own particular first day of summer for 1,000 years,” ethnologist Dr. Árni Björnsson told Iceland Review. “Our ancestors created their own calendar before they knew of the Roman calendar. They split it into two halves: summer and winter.” 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.

Iceland Celebrates First Day of Summer Today

First day of summer Iceland

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.

Worms, Dogs Receive Special Blessing on First Day of Summer

The First Day of Summer was celebrated on Thursday with festivities of all sorts, not least a special blessing of animals at a church in the district of Grafarholt, Vísir reports.

Sumardargurinn fyrsti, or the First Day of Summer, is an annual public holiday that falls between April 19 and 25 every year. The weather was rather warm (for Iceland) in the capital area, with temperatures reaching 14.7°C [59°F]. This actually broke the previous record for warmest First Day of Summer: 13.5°C [56°F] in 1998.

While many were celebrating out-of-doors around the capital and throughout Iceland, parishioners of the Guðríðarkirkja church took the opportunity to take part in a long-standing holiday tradition at the church, namely the blessing of beloved pets and animals. Pastor Leif Ragnar Jónsson says this is an old tradition and one well-known abroad, with connections to Francis of Assisi, Patron Saint of animals and nature.

The first animals to be blessed in the ceremony were eight worms, which were brought in by two girls named Anna and Karen. Dogs, cats, and parrots also received blessings.

 

Temperatures Up to 16°C Tomorrow on First Day of Summer

Laugardalslaug Pool Reykjavík.

Sunshine and summer temperatures are expected tomorrow on Iceland’s national holiday known as Sumardagurinn fyrsti, or the First Day of Summer. The Icelandic Met Office forecasts temperatures as high as 16°C (60.8°F) in some regions tomorrow afternoon, and sunshine virtually across the entire country.

The First Day of Summer is marked yearly in Iceland on the first Thursday following April 18. Weather on the holiday, however, is often not as pleasant as the its name suggests, regularly featuring rain, wind, and snow. If the Icelandic Met Office’s forecast is to be trusted, however, tomorrow has both sunshine and high temperatures in store for residents and visitors across the country.

Temperatures are expected to reach a high of 16°C (60.8°F) between 3.00-4.00pm tomorrow in Reykjavík, and 1.00-4.00pm in Northwest Iceland. Parts of West Iceland could see highs of 15°C (59°F) while South Iceland and the Westfjords may reach highs of 13°C (55.4°F). In East Iceland, expected highs are a tad lower, at 11°C (51.8°F), though a fair amount of sunshine is expected in the region, as nearly everywhere else on the island.

The good weather will not hold out for long, however, as rain is in the forecast in much of the country tomorrow evening.