Iceland’s Swimming Pools and Laufabrauð Proposed as Intangible Cultural Heritage

Laufabrauð.

Minister of Culture Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir wants Iceland’s government to nominate the country’s swimming pool culture and laufabrauð (a traditional Icelandic bread made at Christmastime) to the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, RÚV reports. The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies took part in determining which aspects of Icelandic culture would be nominated for the lists.

Laufabrauð is a thin, decorative, fried bread made and eaten during the Christmas season in Iceland. It originated in North Iceland but is now eaten throughout the country. The geometric patterns in the bread are cut by hand or using a brass roller. Making laufabrauð is often an activity that brings together families in Iceland and an unmissable part of Christmas celebrations.

“I think we can all agree that laufabrauð and the Christmas tradition is something that brings the whole family together and is unique to Iceland,” Lilja stated. “And then of course this rich swimming pool culture, which is, in my opinion, absolutely magnificent and a huge attraction for the country as a tourist destination.”

Geothermal swimming pools are a feature of most towns in Iceland and are a source of relaxation, physical exercise, and social interaction for locals. While modern geothermal swimming pools were largely built starting in the middle of the 20th century, the use of natural geothermal pools stretches back many centuries in Iceland.

UNESCO’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage were established in 2008. They aim to ensure the better protection of important intangible cultural heritages worldwide. Argentine tango is one example of a tradition included on the lists, and France’s “artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread” was added last year. If approved, swimming pool culture and laufabrauð would be the first items on the list unique to Iceland.

‘It’s Mostly Foreigners Who Take an Interest in Turf Houses’

An engineer in East Iceland is passing down ancestral methods of turf construction, Austurfrétt reports. Þorvaldur P. Hjarðar has a great deal of experience with these ancient building techniques, having recently restored two turf outbuildings and one turf sheep shed on his farm, Hjarðarhagi í Jökudal.

“There aren’t a lot of folks who are up for such specialized courses, but seven people were interested in participating and so now we’re just about to finish rebuilding an old, turf smokehouse which must, of course, be consecrated by smoking some lamb and singing the old songs,” said Þorvaldur. His course focused on methods of building turf structures that are unique to the East Fjords.

Interior wall of restored turf house, Hjarðarhagi í Jökudal / Minjastofnun Íslands, Instagram

“Not many people know this, actually, but there were a number of unique things about the turf houses here in the East. Foremost that the masonry on most of them is cabled, as it’s termed. That’s to say that they alternated between layers of turf and stone. This isn’t unheard of elsewhere but it’s very prominent here in the East. It was done a lot here because there weren’t a lot of good stones in most places out here.”

Interior of restored turf sheepshed, Hjarðarhagi í Jökudal / Screenshot, RÚV

Þorvaldur says that Icelanders even have their own prosciutto, though it’s a luxury good that has yet to be capitalized on.

“So, the thing is, that in the old days, all hangikjöt [smoked lamb] was double-smoked in smokehouses made from turf and that hangikjöt is much different from the processed kind we get in Icelandic supermarkets today. The meat is much firmer and the flavour a lot milder. It is, to my mind, the only real Icelandic delicacy, but no one’s running with this historical tradition. We lose our minds over prosciutto in Italy or Jamón Ibérico in Spain. But we’d have an entirely comparable product here in this country, if we just smoked it in an old-fashioned turf house.”

Window of restored turfhouse, Hjarðarhagi í Jökudal / Screenshot, RÚV

Þorvaldur says he’s found there’s a growing interest in Icelandic turf houses, but this interest is by far the greatest among foreign tourists.

“There’s certainly a growing interest, but maybe least of all among Icelanders,” he mused. “It doesn’t make any sense because we tend to go see old buildings when we ourselves are traveling abroad, but we care almost nothing about our own remarkable history and houses. And no one should be in any doubt that Icelandic turf houses are magnificent in every way.”

Fewest Sheep in Iceland Since 1861

icelandic sheep

The number of sheep in Iceland continues to decrease, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture. In the winter of 2020, there were 400,724 sheep in Iceland, compared to 415,847 in 2019: a decrease of 15,123 sheep or 3.63%. There haven’t been fewer sheep in Iceland in 160 years, since 1861 when a sheep scab pandemic led to a drop in sheep numbers to 327,000. Bændablaðið reported first.

The peak of sheep numbers in Iceland so far was reached in 1977 when 896,000 sheep were fed through the winter. Ólafur R. Dýrmundsson has compiled data on the number of sheep in Iceland reaching back to 1703. In the past, drops in sheep numbers have occurred regularly due to disease, volcanic eruptions, or cold temperatures but this time, the development has been more gradual and based on economic shifts. In recent years, lamb consumption has been decreasing while poultry and pork consumption has increased.

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.

More Icelanders Put Up Christmas Tree This Year

It might be the influence of the pandemic that is leading more Icelanders to set up Christmas trees this year than last year. In a recent survey conducted by MMR, 86% of respondents stated they would put up a Christmas tree in their home this year, up from 83% last year. Artificial trees continue to grow in popularity: 58% of respondents say they will opt for one this Christmas rather than a real tree, a proportion that has been steadily rising from 50% in 2010.

The proportion of those who plan to install live trees has decreased by 14 percentage points since 2010 from 42% to 28%. A total of 14% stated they will not have a Christmas tree this year, a decrease of three percentage points between years.

More Women Prefer Artificial Trees, More Men Prefer None

More female respondents chose artificial trees than male respondents (61% versus 54%). Men are more likely not to put up trees than women, however (18% versus 11%). More rural residents than capital area residents choose artificial Christmas trees for their homes, though the difference is small (61% to 58%).

Respondents 68 years and older are more likely than those in other age groups to not have a Christmas tree in their home: a total of 24% of that age group stated they would not do so this year. Those between the ages of 30-49 were most likely to say they would set up a Christmas tree, or 90%, and 60% of them chose artificial trees.

Pirates Avoid Trees

MMR’s yearly tree survey also compares Christmas tree preferences to political leanings. Supporters of the Left-Green Movement, the Progressive Party, and the Social Democratic Alliance are most likely to choose a genuine Christmas tree, while supporters of the Centre Party and the Reform Party are most likely to choose an artificial tree. A total of 31% of those who support the Pirate Party do not plan to install Christmas trees in their homes this year, the highest percentage among all parties in the poll.

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.