Signs of New Year’s Eve Eruption, Experts Warn

Reykjanes eruption Iceland eruption

Developments in the Reykjanes peninsula are now similar to the week leading up the the most recent volcanic eruption in Sundhnúkagígar, experts say. The latest data from the Icelandic Meteorological office shows that on Christmas Day, crustal uplift by Svartsengi was at the same level as it was on December 11 and 12, a week before the volcanic eruption began on December 18. These are indications of an eruption around New Year’s Eve, experts told Morgunblaðið.

“It could happen in the first week of January,” Volcanologist Þorvaldur Þórðarson said, adding that he expected the eruption, if it happens, to be similar to the last one in scope or possibly smaller. “All things being equal, it should be similar. Maybe not as powerful to begin with, but with a longer duration then,” he said.

50-60 Christmas celebrations

Fannar Jónsson, mayor of Grindavík, said there is much uncertainty about the situation. The town of 3,800 people was evacuated on November 10 due to seismic activity. The inhabitants were allowed to return on December 23 to stay overnight in their houses over the holidays. Businesses reopened and their employees can go to work, but aside from that, no people are permitted to pass the roadblocks into town.

“We expect the situation to be reassessed between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and, depending on what happens, the Suðurnes Police Commissioner will make a statement about where we go from there,” Fannar said.

According to Fannar, people celebrated Christmas in around 50 or 60 homes in Grindavík. Fannar said that he and his wife didn’t celebrate in Grindavík themselves. “We stayed with our daughter and enjoyed her hospitality,” Fannar said. “We’ll be away for New Year’s as well, staying with our other daughter, they both live in the capital area. We had a cozy and festive time and I hope other Grindavík resident also did.”

Christmas Anxiety Rising Among Icelanders

christmas cat

According to Icelandic folklore, the Christmas Cat will eat those who don’t receive new clothes to wear on Christmas Eve. If that’s not enough to worry about, the ogress Grýla snatches mischievous children to cook in her pot, while her 13 sons, the Yule Lads, harass the island’s inhabitants and pull nighttime pranks as the days increasingly get shorter.

“Christmas anxiety” is a well-known concept among Icelanders, who spend the last weeks before the holidays running around buying presents and groceries for the many upcoming family gatherings. The term seems to have a sociological and economic foundation. When asked in a new poll by Maskína, 15.3 percent said they were anxious about Christmas, Heimildin reports. This is a higher percentage than last year, when 13.7 percent responded this way, and almost double compared to 2019 when 7.5 percent reported anxiety. On top of this, the number of people who reported little or no anxiety dropped. The percentage of non-anxious went from 71.3 last year to 64.4 percent this year.

Anxiety in lower income brackets

The anxiety is at its highest among those with the lowest income, the poll suggests. A third of those from homes with less than ISK 400,000 [$2,900, €2,700] in monthly income are anxious. However, only one out of ten of those with ISK 1.2 Million [$8,800, €8,000]  in monthly household income reported anxiety. The current economic situation might play a part, Heimildin argues, as purchasing power has steadily declined over the last year, consumer prices have risen due to inflation, which currently stands at 7.7 percent, while interest rates are high, leading to costly monthly mortgage payments for many homeowners.

Supporters of ruling parties in Christmas spirits

People from the higher income brackets were also more likely to say that they “look forward to Christmas”. Over half of the overall population, 52.3 percent, responded this way, but 63.5 percent of the highest earners conveyed their excitement. Political affiliations also seem to have an effect, as supporters of the Left-Green Movement and the Independence Party, both of whom are now in power at the national level, have a more positive outlook for Christmas. The supporters of the Pirate Party, the People’s Party and the Socialist Party are more pessimistic when it comes to the upcoming “holiday of light and peace” as Icelanders call it.

Merry Christmas from the Iceland Review Team!

Icelanders have several Christmas traditions that may seem unique or peculiar to outsiders. They include welcoming the 13 Yule Lads throughout December, listening to the Christmas Eve mass on the radio, and making laufabrauð with the whole family. Still, like elsewhere across the world, the heart of Icelandic Christmas is gathering with loved ones and making time to make bright memories to light up the dark winter nights. Wherever you are this holiday season and however and whatever you celebrate, we hope you can spend time with your nearest and dearest, and perhaps also with a good book – or magazine.
The Iceland Review team would like to wish our readers and their loved ones happy holidays and gleðileg jól. Merry Christmas and thanks for reading!

Hiker Completes 300 km Postal Route for Charity

Hiker Einar Skúlason

Hiker Einar Skúlason finished an 11 day trek along an old northeastern postal route this Friday, raising over ISK 1 Million [$7300, €6600] for The Akureyri Cancer Society. He acted as a real-life postal worker during the trek, delivering Christmas cards along the way, reports.

Einar has previously hiked a number of other old postal routes, which were used before modern roads allowed for safer and quicker travel between rural communities. His latest journey started in the eastern town of Seyðisfjörður on the East Coast on December 4. “I stopped at a few places along the way, as the postal workers used to do back in the day,” Einar told as he concluded the walk in Akureyri. “I visited places like Möðrudalur and Grímsstaður á Fjöllum and got lodging and food like they did in the old days.”

Most of the nights Einar stayed in a tent which he carried on his back along with other supplies, a 30 kg extra weight in total. “I didn’t know if I’d make it in time for Christmas, if there would be any low points, how the weather would be and whether something would happen to me on the way,” he added. “There is always a risk involved carrying such a heavy backpack.”

Freezing cold during the hike

The route is nearly 300 km long, but Einar was able to stop at a number of natural baths along the way to ease his sore muscles and warm himself up. “It was frightfully cold on the way, usually a double digit number below zero, sometimes 15 to 20 degrees freezing,” Einar said. “But the day before yesterday it was 17 below by Mývatn, but then suddenly zero degrees at midnight.”

Einar raised money for The Akureyri Cancer Society from online pledges and fees for the Christmas greetings he delivered on the way. “The Society does great work. So I called them up and asked if I should raise money for them,” he said, adding that promoting the Society’s work is an added benefit, which will hopefully encourage people in need to reach out to them.

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.

How was Christmas celebrated throughout history in Iceland?

christmas traditions iceland

In response to a reader request, we present this article from the archives.

Feasting Traditions at Christmastime

Árni Björnsson (1980)

The section on Christian law in the Gragas law code (13th century) has a chapter about the celebration of Christmas and what kind of work may be performed during the holidays. This proves to be almost nothing but the most urgent necessities, such as feeding the livestock, milking, and occasionally cleaning the stables. The rule is valid not only for the holidays proper but also for the days between. It is interesting to note that among the most urgent necessities are brewing and slaughtering: “Slaughtering the stock needed during Christmas and brewing ale are also among the chores to be done on the days between [the holidays proper] of Christmas.’’ This shows that during the commonwealth (930—1262) fresh meat and ale were considered indispensable for the festivities, a fact underscored by numerous instances in the sagas. It was also a fact, that at no other time of the year did people eat and drink more for days on end, and it has been the practice ever since that all the best food available be served at this time. The folktales make this evident, too.

While households were populous, as often was the case in commonwealth times, it was necessary to slaughter stock not only before Christmas but also, as Gragas indicates, between Christmas and New Year, or the Octave and Twelfth Night. When households grew smaller and the nation’s means decreased, especially after 1600, people in most places made do with slaughtering the Christmas ewe just before the holiday. Folktales also indicate this, and the custom was actually adhered to in many parts of the country; it was not entirely abandoned until freezing facilities became common. Hangikjöt (smoked lamb) was long the chief holiday dish, but it was not commonly eaten until Christmas Day. Some other tasty delicacies were those which now are known as traditional Icelandic food: flanks, intestinal sausages, briskets, hard fish, halibut fins, etc. In areas that were far from the sea, it was sometimes felt to be more of a change to eat fish rather than meat.

Other favorite dishes were, of course, dependent upon fashion and supply, such as the inevitable Christmas porridge, which could be meat porridge (actually a stew), barley porridge with syrup and milk, or a thick rice porridge with raisins.

Bread was hard to come by in Iceland most of the time because of erratic imports of grain flour. For that reason it was somewhat of a holiday treat, even if it was only flatbread or potted bread. Lace bread is mentioned in the oldest cookbook published in Iceland (1800), entitled A Simple Pocket Cook Hook for Ladies of Quality. It states: “Lace bread, or cakes made of flour dough, moistened with good sugared milk or cream, variously cut out and fried in melted butter, are so common that they need no further mentioning.” A well-known biography mentions a banquet in the year 1772 at which lace bread was also considered common native Icelandic food. After the mid-19th century, however, lace bread seems to have been particularly connected with the North and Northeast, and such has been the case ever since, until very recently when people in various parts of the country have resumed making it for their pleasure.

While there are decorated breads in other countries, an exact parallel to the lace bread is nowhere known. It is noteworthy how gossamer thin the bread is supposed to be, which prompts the guess that this was the result of the scarcity of flour. The decorative carving could also make the bread less filling. On the other hand, it was a beautiful and tasty bit of food which was fun to eat, even though each individual may not have been served more than one.

After the turn of this century and even more around 1920, people’s tastes in Christmas food changed considerably, especially in the countryside. By that time, stoves with baking ovens had become common, and imports of flour, sugar, and other baking materials were more abundant. This made it a good deal easier to bake all kinds of pastry. It then became fashionable, and alomst a status symbol, to store a profusion of cookies and stately cakes. Such production was the most elaborate around Christmas. Various kinds of sweet soups also came into vogue. All this, of course, greatly reduced the prominence of traditional Icelandic Christmas food. Moreover, for a long time afterward little ingenuity was expended on utilizing new technology for novel and tasty preparation of meat and fish. Icelandic cookery has hardly yet recovered from the invasion.

It is not clear what people drank in former centuries if they did not have ale, but most probably it was milk and whey. Coffee and tea were not imported until close to the middle of the 18th century, and for a long time after that were served only for a change on holidays, such as Christmas. Liquor was used in many places at Christmas, but not everybody had it on hand.

Christmas Banquets

The previous section dealt with food and beverage in ordinary homes, but in medieval times and even later it was clearly not uncommon that chieftains and other prominent people give great banquets at Christmas. There are many contemporary examples of Christian banquets in Sturlunga Saga. About Snorri Sturluson it says, in 1226: “That winter Snorri made Christmas toasts according to Nordic tradition. Numerous people attended.”

About Gissur Thorvaldsson, in 1241: “Gissur remained at Tunga that winter. He made a populous Christmas banquet, inviting his friends to stay until the Octave. On that occasion mead was mixed and ale brewed. A popular toast was held on the Octave, though one of short duration. Nearly 80 warriors took part.”

About Thordur Kakali, in 1242: “He then remained at home during the winter up until Christmas. At that time, he invited all the best people of the Western Fjords, making a great banquet ar Myrar . . . And as they departed, he gave gifts to many people, all of whom then became closer friends with him
than before.”

Thorgils Skardi was at Miklibaer (in Skagafjord) in the winter of 1257: “He remained at home until Christmas and was a lavish host, making a great Christmas banquet. At that time, he invited numerous wealthy farmers and gave them expensive gifts. It was a memorable occasion for the sake of hospitality, number of people, and good housing.”

(All the above chieftains were contestants in the struggle for power that finally led to the loss of Icelandic independence in 1262). The bishops of Holar also gave many parties at Christmas. The Norwegian Heinrekur Karsson invited Thorgils Skardi in 1252: “On Christmas Day the bishop arranged the seating. He put Thorgils on the dais next to himself, along with as many of his men as the dais would hold. The bishop invited Thorgils and all his retainers to stay for the duration of Christmas. The feast proceeded until the Twelfth Day with great mirth and good times. There was no shortage of good beverages and other provisions. On Twelfth Night the banquet reached a climax and the toasts came fast. Thorgils’ men became very drunk.”

Nor did Bishop Laurentius Kalfsson in the 14th century abandon the custom. His saga describes it as follows: “He always made a creditable Christmas banquet for all his clergy, pensioners, butler, and house matron, as well as all his other household staff, and everybody would be well feted.” It is also said that Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson used to have a banquet every year at New Years and invite to it all the most prominent people in the surrounding districts. But after his time there are few reports of great feasts at the bishop’s seat or anywhere else. It is strange that no stories seem to have survived of such banquets at Skalholt, though that must really be a coincidence. But from the Skalholt diocese there is an entry in a chronicle reporting the death in 1670 of the Rev. Thordur Jonsson of Hitardal (in the West): “The couple, Thordur and Helga, were very generous, easy with their money, and hospitable. They held a great banquet once each winter at Christmastide, to which all the most prominent people in the vicinity would be invited. It would last for a week.”

Christmas Presents

While Christmas presents were known in antiquity among kings and chieftains, especially on the continent, they have been common among ordinary people in Iceland only in the past 100 years at the most. It is true that people generally received some new piece of clothing and a new pair of sheepskin shoe’s, called Christmas shoes, from their masters, but these were not really personal presents and could just as well be regarded as a kind of Christmas bonus. In the* early 10th century, however, it had become a fairly general custom to give all the children, and even all members of the household, candles at Christmas. In those days, this was not at all a poor gift, because candlelight was incomparably brighter than that of the oil lamp. The candles were made of tallow, and molding them was one of the tasks that had to be done before Christmas. Then, when each person lit a candle by his bed, it is easy to imagine the holiday atmosphere created. By the late 19th century Christmas presents were rapidly spreading, and part of the reason may be that many more shops had been opened. Gifts then began to include such things as playing cards, soap, handkerchiefs, apron material, caps, scarves, and the like, and even books for the children. For example, Stefan from Hvitadal, who later became a well-known poet, was given the story of Snow White for Christmas in 1896. He was nine at the time.

Apropos of playing cards, it should be mentioned that by far the most common pastime at Christmas was playing cards. The most popular games were cribbage, matrimony, whist, and ombre. The general rule was that playing would not begin until the second day of Christmas, but then it was done far into the night. Among older people, the rule against playing on Christmas Eve and even on Christmas Day survived for a long time, and it still may.

It was not until World War II, or after 1940, that the prevalence and extravagance of Christmas presents increased to the degree that has since been common; at least, this was the case outside Reykjavik. That was not surprising. Christmas presents were not an old, ingrained tradition, and people were very poor during the first decades of the century; nor did the Depression years, 1930—40, help much. It may be said that the present plague of Christmas gifts followed the vaunted revolution of living standards among the working classes around 1942, from which the sellers of Christmas articles have certainly reaped a windfall.

Rising Prices Likely to Affect Christmas Book Market

iceland christmas book

Inflation and the energy crisis in Europe are driving up prices for many consumer goods, and Christmas books are likely to be no exception this year.

Books are a traditional and popular Christmas gift in Iceland, so much so that the months preceding Christmas see a “jólabókaflóð,” or flood of Christmas books. The tradition is said to have originated during the Second World War, when products from Europe became scarcer. Books were largely printed locally and were seen as cheap and easily available Christmas gifts.

Read more: Icelandic Publishers Optimistic About Christmas Book Flood

In a statement to RÚV, chairman of the Association of Icelandic Book Publishers Heiðar Ingi Svansson stated that the industry hopes to avoid price increases as much as possible, but that some increases will be inevitable.

Heiðar outlined the factors contributing to rising costs: “the main ones are that the energy crisis in Europe is causing an increase in energy prices for the production of paper. In recent years, the supply of paper for book printing has also decreased due to the greater focus of paper manufacturers on producing paper for packaging production, due to the increase in online sales.”

Despite the energy crisis and rising costs, Heiðar says that the Icelandic publishing industry must still largely rely on Northern Europe for its needs. “The increase in transportation costs around the world and the fact that the state’s reimbursement of part of the production costs is limited to printing in Europe means that it is not possible for publishers to print books elsewhere in the world,” Heiðar stated. “Also, environmental considerations, including the carbon footprint, play a major role.”

Another factor keeping Icelandic publishing in Europe, and especially Germany, is the increasing time frame for printing books. Years ago, when paper was cheaper, publishers kept large stocks of paper. Now with increasing shift in logistics to “just in time” manufacturing, publishers tend to keep increasingly small stocks of paper, meaning that supplies have to be specially ordered for each print run. This means increased time between when the book is sent off to print and when it hits shelves. As a result of this, Icelandic book publishers are keen to keep the printing process as close to Iceland as possible to ensure on-time delivery.

Despite the bleak holiday forecast, Heiðar stated that “we are going to do everything in our power to hold back price increases on books before Christmas. The Christmas book is by far the most popular Christmas gift for Icelanders, and we plan to do everything we can to ensure that it remains so.”


COVID-19 in Iceland: Arrive by December 18 to Avoid Christmas in Quarantine

As Iceland’s domestic COVID-19 cases dwindle, its Chief Epidemiologist says maintaining vigilance at the border is crucial to avoiding a new local outbreak. At a briefing in Reykjavík today, authorities went over both border regulations – set to remain the same until at least February 1 – and domestic restrictions, which will likely be loosened minimally on December 2.

Iceland’s reported three domestic cases yesterday, two of which were in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. The number of active cases is currently 198 and has been steadily dropping since mid-October. Iceland currently has the lowest COVID-19 incidence rate in all of Europe. Strain on the healthcare system is decreasing, and Akureyri Hospital in North Iceland has discharged all COVID-19 patients.

Guidelines for Christmas Parties Forthcoming

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason said he would be submitting his recommendations for updated restrictions sometime around the weekend. The new restrictions would take effect on December 2 and likely remain unchanged until the end of the year, according to Þórólfur.

At today’s briefing, authorities celebrated Icelanders’ success in containing the current wave of infections but emphasised the need to stay alert and continue practising personal preventative measures. Guidelines on infection prevention for holiday gatherings will be released later this week, Þórólfur stated. Director of Civil Protection Víðir reminded those returning to Iceland from abroad to arrive in the country by December 18 in order to be out of quarantine by Christmas.

Border Testing Remains Crucial

Iceland’s current wave of infection was largely brought about by one strain of the virus that arrived in the country in mid-August. Recently, however, a few new strains of SARS-CoV-2 have emerged. Most of these have been traced to border cases, which have caused small group outbreaks. The origin of one of the strains has not yet been discovered.

Though he was not particularly concerned about these small outbreaks, Þórólfur stressed the importance of monitoring people who test positive at the border closely and making sure they are well informed. Testing at the border has been made free of charge in December and January in an effort to encourage travellers to opt for testing rather than 14-day quarantine.

Iceland Review live-tweets Icelandic authorities’ information briefings on Mondays and Thursdays at 11.03am UTC.

First May Day Without Celebrations in 97 Years

hotel workers strike Reykjavík

May 1, or International Workers’ Day, has been observed with protest marches and workers’ demonstrations in Iceland since May 1, 1923; it has been a public holiday in the country since 1972. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and prohibitions on public gatherings of over 20 people, however, in-person May Day celebrations were called off in Iceland this year for the first time in nearly a century, Vísir reports.

As such, labour organizers, unions, and workers took their demands online, with a virtual rally organized by The Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ), the Confederation of University Graduates, and the Federation of State and Municipal Employees. The rally included performances by a broad range of Icelandic musicians, including Bubbi Morthens, Auður, and the Labour Brass Band, and was broadcast from Harpa concert hall on Friday night. People were also encouraged to make May Day-related signs and post them on social media.

Union Leader Urges Solidarity

In her May Day address, ÁSI President Drífa Snædal emphasized that workers and organizers should not lose sight of either their immediate demands—unemployment benefits and basic security for all workers during the current economic and employment crisis—nor the “big demands,” namely, “equality and justice and a just society.” She also urged solidarity now more than ever.

“There’s always a danger in circumstances such as these that people find themselves in such dire straits that they start undercutting one another and taking worse jobs under worse terms,” said Drífa. “Which is why it’s of the utmost importance that we abide by the framework that we’ve set out for ourselves here in Iceland and stick to our collective bargaining agreements and terms.”

Wage Disputes and Contract Negotiations Ongoing

May Day also threw into relief several high-profile wage disputes and contract negotiations that have been ongoing in Iceland of late. On Wednesday, the Icelandic Nurses Association voted to reject the contract that was signed by their union on April 10. Icelandic nurses have been without a contract for over a year; 46% of union members supported the new contract, while 53% voted against it.

Icelandic police have also been without a contract for over a year. Unable to demonstrate and make their demands publicly on May Day, they opted to take part in a digital demonstration. “One year without a contract,” declares the video, reminding viewers that 19 years ago, police took part in a public march on April 30, 2001, when their contract with the state had lapsed. “Police are on the front lines!” continues the video. “We venture in when others take shelter. We demand wage corrections without delay!”

Efling Union members employed by five municipalities in the capital area and South Iceland will also resume striking on Tuesday, May 5. The members working for the municipalities of Kópavogur, Seltjarnarnes, Mosfellsbær, Hveragerði, and Ölfus voted overwhelmingly in support of strike action. The union’s negotiation committee postponed strike action during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic but announced that the strike would be voted on again after Easter. The strike will affect elementary schools and home services.

Wage struggles must be allowed to continue, concluded Drífa Snædal in her May Day address, responding to criticisms of continued strike actions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. “If we push everything aside because of the situation—be it a collective bargaining agreement or wage dispute—we don’t know where it will end.”



Ísafjörður Celebrates the Return of Sun

Today is Sólardagur, or Sun Day, the day on which the residents of Ísafjörður in the Westfjords welcome the return of the sun, RÚV reports. During the dark winter days at the end of the year, the sun never crests the top of the mountains that line the Skutulsfjörður fjord. Today, however, the year’s first rays of the sun will shine over Ísafjörður and the village residents will celebrate this ‘sun-coming’ with a Sólarkaffi, or Sun Coffee, of coffee, homemade pancakes, and whipped cream.

“The shortest day of the year is December 21st and then the next time the sun is seen [in Ísafjörður] is January 25th,” explains Guðmundur Fr. Jóhannsson, who is the chairman of a society of Ísafjörður ‘expats’ who live in Reykjavík. “But if we go a just a little further back, it’s actually around November 16th that the sun starts to disappear from Sólgata,” he says, talking about ‘Sun Street,’ which runs through the centre of the village. “So it’s around two months, or 70 days, during which the sun isn’t visible. So there’s a real occasion to celebrate when the sun shines on Sólgata again.”

The Sólarkaffi tradition is so much beloved of Ísafjörður residents—or Ísafirdingar in Icelandic— that even those who have moved away still celebrate it. In fact, The Society of Ísafirðingar in Reykjavík has held its own Sólarkaffi for almost 74 years. “The Society of Ísafirðingar in Reykjavík was founded in April 1945 and held its first Sólarkaffi in 1946. It’s been held continuously ever since,” says Guðmundur. The Reykjavík event began as a simple Sunday afternoon gathering but has since turned into a Friday night dinner and dance. This year’s event will be held at Grand Hotel Reykjavík.

The Society of Ísafirðingar in Reykjavík, which currently boasts almost 600 members, hosts a number of social events throughout the year, as well as keeping a house in Ísafjörður that members can use. Originally, it was founded to ensure that Ísafirðingar didn’t lose touch with their roots, even though they might live somewhere else. The group’s marquee event is the Sólarkaffi, which though a very personal celebration for former residents, is not, Guðmundur hastens to add, an exclusive one. “Obviously everyone is welcome and you don’t have to be a member to [to attend].”