Merry Christmas from the Iceland Review Team!

Christmas
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!

‘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.”

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.

Kvennaskólinn Students Celebrate Peysuföt Day

Reykjavík’s Kvennaskólinn, or Kvennó, upper secondary school held its annual Peysuföt Day on Friday, RÚV reports. This is an almost century-old tradition wherein the second-year students dress in Iceland’s national costume and celebrate with traditional songs and dancing.

Peysuföt is the name for the Icelandic women’s national costume that was introduced in the 19th century. As explained on the Icelandic National Costume website site, 19th century peysuföt was simpler and less decorative than the costume it proceeded from, which was known as faldbúningur. Generally black or dark blue, it consisted of a tasseled cap, woolen skirt with a patterned apron, and long-sleeved jacked, or peysa, from which it takes its name. In the 20th century, “peysuföt…evolved with changing times, fashion trends and the availability of materials,” continues the site, but it still included the tightly-fitted peysa, the plackets and cuffs of which were now “trimmed with velvet, and the sleeves were slightly puffed at the shoulder.” A lace or embroidered stomacher was also added, as was a large silk bow tied at the neck.

Accompanied by an accordionist, Kvennó students began their celebrations on Friday by singing and dancing in front of the Ministry for Culture before moving along to a nursing home where they performed for residents and staff. There was more dancing and singing in front of one of the buildings on the students’ own campus, as well as at another nursing home and in Ingólfstorg square downtown after lunch. Students were then served cocoa and cake back at their school and were treated to a more expansive spread of treats than usual this year, in honor of the 100-year anniversary of their student association.

See a video of previous Peysuföt Day celebrations held by the Versló school:

Preparations for this year’s celebrations at Kvennaskólinn have been underway for a long time, as in addition to learning a number of songs for the occasion, the students were also taught to dance the skottís folk dance.

See the skottís performed:

Interestingly, students at Kvennaskólinn were required to wear the national costume to school from 1874, when Kvennaskólinn first opened as a women-only upper secondary institution, until 1906. (Kvennó became a co-ed school in 1977.) Although it was no longer required dress after 1906, many students still wore the national dress as something of a uniform until 1920, when only a few students are remembered as maintaining the tradition. The first official Peysuföt Day was initiated by students the following year, in 1921, and has been celebrated every year since.

Pumpkin Carving Now Popular in Iceland

Carving pumpkins for Hallowe’en is a growing trend in Iceland. RÚV reports that pumpkins are currently sold out in grocery stores around the country.

Though Hallowe’en is not traditionally celebrated in Iceland, more and more locals are partaking in North American traditions to mark the holiday, including carving jack-o’-lanterns. Sævar Óli Ólafsson, chief buyer at Samkaup has notice the trend. “We have doubled our sales [of pumpkins] compared to last year,” he stated.

Icelandic children and adults are increasingly dressing up on October 31, even trick-or-treating in some neighbourhoods. The popularity of American television and movies is likely behind the trend.

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