Happy New Year!

Fireworks Exploding over Reykjavík

Last night the usual New Year’s Eve traditions were carried out as they have been for many years in Iceland: families came together for a holiday dinner, visited neighbourhood bonfires, watched the yearly Áramótaskaup comedy revue, and set off fireworks to ring in 2024 with a bang.

Wherever you are, dear reader, the Iceland Review team hopes you found comfort in some familiar traditions and are looking forward to 2024. We certainly look forward to bringing you the best of Icelandic culture, nature, and community in the coming year. To all our readers and their loved ones: Happy New Year, Gleðilegt ár and thanks for reading!

New Year’s Eve Bonfires at Ten Locations in Reykjavík

New Year's eve bonfire in Laugarás in Reykjavík

There will be ten New Year’s Eve bonfires in Reykjavík tonight to mark the end of 2023.

New Year’s bonfires are a tradition reaching back to the 18th century in Iceland, stemming from the belief that if you want to have a clean slate for the new year, you have to symbolically burn away the old year and everything it represents. The tradition was first started by rowdy students but these days, it’s a family-friendly occasion, with people gathering around a fire and singing a few songs. Since New Year’s Eve is linked to folk beliefs and superstitions, some say that elves or hidden people make an appearance at the fires.

This year’s bonfires will be lit at the following times in the following locations:

At Ægisíða at 8:30 PM.
In Skerjafjörður opposite Skildinganes 48-52 at 9:00 PM.
At Suðurhlíð, below Fossvogur Cemetery at 8:30 PM.
Laugardalur, below Laugarásvegur 18 at 8:30 PM.
Geirsnef, on the north side of Geirsnef at 8:30 PM.
At Jafnasel at 8:30 PM.
At Rauðavatn lake on the north side at 8:30 PM.
Gufunes by Gufunesbær at 8:30 PM.
At Kléberg in Kjalarnes at 8:30 PM.
Úlfarsfell at Fisfélagið activity area above Lambhagavegur at 3:00 PM.

All of the above bonfires are categorised as small bonfires except the first at Gufunes and Geirsnef, which will be large bonfires.

Iceland’s Christmas Book Flood Tradition Goes Global

Iceland Publishers' Association 2023 book fair

The Icelandic tradition of jólabókaflóðið, or the Christmas Book Flood, seems to have achieved global popularity. Heiðar Ingi Svansson, Chair of the Association of Icelandic Publishers, has told Morgunblaðið that while he has long sensed interest in the phenomenon among international publishers, the enthusiasm among the general public has been surprising.

“Thousands of posts” on social media

As noted in an article published in the newspaper Morgunblaðið this morning, reading enthusiasts around the world have increasingly shown interest in the phenomenon of the Christmas book flood (i.e. jólabókaflóðið, referring to the Icelandic tradition of gifting books for Christmas and spending the holiday reading in cosy surroundings, often with a cup of hot cocoa or chocolate in hand). Morgunblaðið claimed that thousands of posts celebrating this tradition can be observed on social media.

To substantiate this claim, the news outlet pointed to a post from Junía Lin Jónsdóttir, sister of Icelandic musician Laufey, who recently introduced her followers on TikTok to the Christmas book flood. Likewise, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who boasts approximately 10 million followers, shared an Instagram post about the phenomenon.

The origins of the Christmas Book Flood can be attributed to Iceland’s deep-rooted literary history and, during World War II, stringent currency restrictions. These restrictions curtailed the import of various gifts, but with more relaxed rules on importing paper, books emerged as the go-to Christmas present.

Surprising popularity

Morgunblaðið spoke to Heiðar Ingi Svansson, Chairman of the Association of Icelandic Publishers, who agreed that the Christmas Book Flood appeared to have attracted global attention: “I’m on the board of an international publishers association, and I am often asked about this phenomenon. But it’s surprising to see how widespread it has become among the general public. It travels through some channels on social media, and you see people all over the world celebrating the tradition,” Heiðar Ingi stated.

Morgunblaðið noted that determining the exact origins of this trend was challenging. The Christmas Book Flood may have gained international attention in 2012 with coverage on NPR’s website, possibly marking a sort of inception point. Whatever the case,  media attention has steadily grown annually, contributing to the widespread popularity of the phenomenon. “A quick online search reveals that the Christmas Book Flood has now reached audiences in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the UK, and various European countries,” Morgunblaðið noted.

Eschewing the phones, embracing the books

“This romantic idea of us cuddling in log cabins with hot cocoa, in a land of fire and ice, is appealing. Many people may also want to encourage more family time during the holidays, with people uniting over books instead of spending time on their phones,” Heiðar Ingi stated.

Morgunblaðið also noted that there are instances where bookstores offer specially assembled packages for people to enjoy the Christmas Book Flood. One such package, advertised for sale on Instagram, includes three books, cosy socks, a festive candle, and chocolate. Customers being offered free gift-wrapping and chocolate with every book purchase is also common. Publishers and bloggers have also seized upon the Christmas book flood for marketing purposes.

Heiðar Ingi told Morgunblaðið that he has often been interviewed by foreign media about this phenomenon. Next week, for instance, he has been invited for a live interview on CNN. “It will be fun. I had to send them an audio clip because they wanted to prepare for the pronunciation of jólabókaflóð.”

The Christmas Craftsman

laufabrauð christmas iceland

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, families and friends in Iceland come together to make the traditional fried and decorated wafer known as laufabrauð (leaf bread). Rolled out thin, decorated, and fried, the preparation of these treats is an event that brings together families, often with multiple generations taking part. But you won’t find […]

This content is only visible under subscription. Subscribe here or log in.

Continue reading

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.

Spring on the Wing – Golden Plover Arrives in Iceland

Golden Plover Iceland

Iceland’s herald of spring, the migratory golden plover, has arrived in the country. The first birds were spotted in the southeastern region yesterday, March 20, according to the Southeast Iceland Bird Observatory. Other migratory bird species, including white-fronted geese and pink-footed geese, have been spotted returning to their nesting grounds in small groups. Iceland is a key breeding area for many bird species: one-third of the world’s golden plovers, for example, breed on the island.

This winter has been a particularly snowy and stormy one across Iceland. A series of storms hit the country last month, bringing record snowfall to the Reykjavík area. As a result, local hardware stores sold out of snow shovels, blowers and scrapers in February. As most of the country is still a wintry wonderland, the golden plover is likely locals’ first true sign that spring is on its way.

It’s a Living Thing

Þjóðbúningur Icelandic national costume

In 2004, Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, then Minister of Education, Science, and Culture, appeared on live television wearing Iceland’s national costume. The outfit seemed perfectly appropriate for the occasion, which was the reopening of the National Museum of Iceland following its renovation. But it soon became clear that the Minister’s choice of outfit had backfired – […]

This content is only visible under subscription. Subscribe here or log in.

Continue reading

Subdued Celebrations for Iceland’s National Day Tomorrow

Icelandic National Day celebrations tomorrow will be more subdued than usual in order to adhere to the 300-person gathering limit in place across the country. The City of Reykjavík has encouraged residents to celebrate with their nearest and dearest but those who explore the city might stumble upon pop-up events including brass bands, circus performers, and DJs.

Icelanders celebrate National Day every June 17 – the date in 1944 when the Republic of Iceland was officially established and the country became independent from Danish rule. The date was chosen as it coincides with the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson (1811-1879), one of the leaders of Iceland’s independence movement. The day is usually celebrated with large public gatherings and parades, but festivities will be slightly less bombastic tomorrow due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Celebrations will begin at 11:00am with a government ceremony in Austurvöllur square. A concert featuring Icelandic musicians will take place in nearby Hljómskálagarður park between 2.00pm-6.00pm. In Akureyri, North Iceland, programming will begin at 1.00pm in Lystigarðurinn and continue with family-friendly events between 2.00pm and 4.00pm at the City Hall square (Ráðhústorg), followed by evening programming in the town centre until midnight. Most towns or municipalities have published their festival program on their website and Facebook page.

Information about City of Reykjavík programming for National Day is available online in English.

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.