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The Icelandic Culture: An Insight into Holidays and Customs

By Tanja Rasmussen

Five children dressed up as elves on Þrettándinn.
Photo: Photo: Golli. Five children dressed up as elves on Þrettándinn..

Iceland is a country of many holidays and customs. Throughout the year, there are multiple occasions to celebrate, and as elsewhere, these are opportunities to gather friends or family, be social, and eat both traditional and festive food. The following list of holidays and customs is not exhaustive but will give you some insight into the Icelandic culture. 

January

January 1: New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day is a day of rest in Iceland. Most things will be closed on this day, but if you’re in need of a little action, head down to Nauthólsvík Beach in Reykjavík and tag along for the increasingly popular tradition of New Year’s wild swimming

Winter sea bathing in Nauthólsvík.
Photo: Golli. Winter sea bathing in Nauthólsvík.

January 6: Þrettándinn

On the thirteenth and last day of Christmas, families and friends come together to say farewell to Christmas with fireworks and bonfires. According to folklore, this is a time of magic, with mythical creatures out and about trying to lure humans into their magical world. 

End of January: Bóndadagurinn and sun celebrations

Bóndadagurinn, Husband’s Day, is a day where male spouses are celebrated. The day marks the beginning of Þorrinn, which, according to the old Icelandic calendar, was the fourth month of winter. During this time, it is customary to eat Þorramatur, which constitutes traditional Icelandic food such as ram’s balls, lamb’s heads, shark, and rutabaga mash. The end of January is also the time of year when many communities celebrate the sun’s rising above the mountains after a period of darkness.

Traditional Icelandic þorramatur.
Traditional Icelandic þorramatur.

February

End of February: Konudagurinn

Konudagurinn, Wife’s Day, is a day to celebrate wives, fiancés, and girlfriends. It also marks the start of Góa, the fifth month of winter in the old Icelandic calendar. Old beliefs have it that bad weather during Góa is a sign of a good summer to come.

February 4 to March 10: Bolludagur, sprengidagur and öskudagur

In the seventh week before Easter, the Icelandic people celebrate this trio of days that comes with an overload of food. Bolludagur, Bun Day, features cream buns of various sorts, and on Sprengidagur, Bursting Day, Icelanders load up on salted lamb meat and split pea soup. On Öskudagur, Ash Wednesday, children dress up in costumes and walk between stores to sing in exchange for candy.

March and April

March 22 to April 25: Easter

Easter is celebrated in Iceland, with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Day, and the Second Day of Easter marked as official holidays. On Easter Sunday, it’s customary to indulge in chocolate easter eggs filled with candy and idioms. Whitsun, the seventh Sunday after easter and the following Monday are national holidays as well.

A broken Icelandic easter egg and the candy inside it.
Photo: Golli. A broken Icelandic easter egg and the candy inside it.

End of April – First day of summer

The first day of summer is celebrated on the first Thursday after April 18. According to Icelandic folklore, if winter and summer ‘freeze together’, the coming summer will be good. This is a day off for most people, and you can attend outdoor festivities all over the country. Traditionally, Icelandic children get a summer gift on the first day of summer.

May

May 1: Labour Day

Like many other countries, Iceland celebrates Labour Day. A day off for most, you’ll find crowds of people attending parades, speeches, and union coffees all over the country.

June

First Sunday of June: Sjómannadagurinn

At its core, the Icelandic people are a fishing nation, and we have a holiday to testify to that. Sjómannadagurinn, Fishermen’s Day, dates back to 1938 and is celebrated with various festivities in honour of fishermen all over Iceland. 

Children playing games in the Reykjavík harbour on Sjómanndadagurinn.
Photo: Golli. Children playing games in the Reykjavík harbour on Sjómanndadagurinn.

June 17: The Icelandic National Holiday

On June 17, 1944, Iceland became a republic after centuries of Norwegian and Danish rule. Since then, the day has been the Icelandic National Holiday, a day of parades, family fun, cake buffets, and other lively activities. On Austurvöllur Square, Fjallkonan, the embodiment of Iceland, appears in traditional Icelandic dress and reads a poem for the nation. 

August

Beginning of August: Verslunarmannahelgin

Verslunarmannahelgin, Tradesmens’ Weekend, is one of the biggest travelling weekends of the year in Iceland, with various outdoor festivals taking place all over the country. Amongst the bigger ones are Þjóðhátíð in Vestmannaeyjar Islands and Neistaflug in Neskaupsstaður. The following Monday is called Trademen’s’ Day, and it is an official holiday. It was established in 1894 through a joint effort from all the major shop owners in Reykjavík. 

Early August: Reykjavík Pride

Reykjavík Pride has been a stable part of the Icelandic culture since 1999. It started out as a weekend event but has now become a full week of celebration. 

September

Whole of September

September is the time of réttir in Iceland, a tradition of farmers, landowners and communities herding the country’s free ranging sheep back to their farms for winter. Réttir is usually accompanied by loads of baked goods, coffee, alcohol and singing.

Réttir in North Iceland.
Photo: Golli. Réttir in North Iceland.

November

November 16: The Day of the Icelandic Tongue 

To commemorate the Icelandic language, a national day for celebration was established in 1996. The day chosen was poet Jónas Hallgrímsson‘s birthday (b. 1807, d. 1845), but he contributed to the Icelandic language more than 200 new and uniquely Icelandic words. Among them are the Icelandic words for ‘adverb’, ‘property of a nation’ and ‘the peacefulness of the countryside’: ‘lýsingarorð’, ‘þjóðareign’ and ‘sveitasæla’.

December

December 1: Sovereignty Day

In 1918, an agreement was made between Iceland and its Danish rulers, in which Denmark acknowledged Iceland’s sovereignty. Replaced by the National Holiday in 1944, Sovereignty Day is no longer an official holiday, but nevertheless, you’ll see flags hoisted all over the country.

Throughout December: The Advent and Yulelads

Although the average Icelander is not highly religious, they go all in on the holiday season. Taking place in the darkest time of the year when the daylight hours are as few as 3 hours, they have plenty of traditions and activities to lighten their spirits. The last four Sundays before Christmas are called Advent Sundays, and on each, a candle is lit in so-called advent wreaths. Many families and friends meet for Christmas activities on these days, such as Christmas baking or the making of Laufabrauð, a traditional fried and decorated wafer. Then there are the Yulelads, 13 brothers who make their way down from the mountains from December 12, one at a time. They place small gifts in children’s shoes up until December 24.

Yulelads in downtown Reykjavík.
Photo: Golli. Yulelads in downtown Reykjavík.

December 23: Þorláksmessa

On Þorláksmessa, Icelanders come together to eat fermented skate. This stems from an old tradition of eating low-quality fish before indulging in the festive foods of Christmas. To get rid of the horrid smell, it is recommended to boil hangikjöt, traditionally smoked lamb. 

December 24: Christmas Eve

Most people work only half a day on Christmas Eve, and at 6 PM, the church bells ring in Christmas. Families gather around a festive meal, wearing their finest clothes, and after dinner, Christmas gifts are opened. 

December 25 and 26: Christmas Day and Second Day of Christmas

These are days off for most people and are often regarded as days to stay in pyjamas, play games, read, or watch movies. They are also common days for the extended family to gather, often to eat the hangikjöt boiled on Þorláksmessa. It is eaten with canned peas, fermented red cabbage, and boiled potatoes in a béchamel type sauce. 

December 31: New Year’s Eve

The Icelandic people, well and truly wild about fireworks, celebrate New Year with a bang. With parties kicking off with a festive dinner, the spectacles start around eight or nine and go on long past midnight, with only a brief pause between 10:30 and 11:30 PM – the airing time of the yearly áramótaskaup, a comedy review of the year.

Fireworks on New Year's Eve.
Photo: Golli. Fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

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