Carnival is a festive period celebrated just before the Christian observance of Lent*. Although not referred to as such in the country, Carnival is, technically speaking, observed in Iceland, although in a manner befitting the circumstances and the climate (also, Lent is not really observed in Iceland, at least not anymore).
The Icelandic “Carnival” comprises Bolludagur (or Bun Day), Sprengidagur (Mardi Gras), and Öskudagur (Ash Wednesday).
Bolludagur – Monday, February 24, 2020
Sprengidagur – Tuesday, February 25, 2020
Öskudagur – Wednesday, February 26, 2020
If you’re visiting Iceland at the end of February, we suggest partaking in the festivities if possible. Below, you will find a brief account of the three days of “Carnival” in Iceland.
*During Lent, many Christians fast or abstain from certain luxuries to replicate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice during his 40-day journey into the desert.
Bolludagur (Bun Day)
Bolludagur* is the first in the row of three peculiar holidays that together comprise the Icelandic “Carnival.” The name roughly translates to “Bun Day” in English and falls on the Monday six weeks before Easter (meaning that the actual date changes every year). This year it falls on February 24. Bakers from Denmark or Norway introduced the custom to Icelanders in the middle of the nineteenth century; the Icelanders owe them great thanks for the delicious Bolludagsbolla (Bun-Day Bun).
Bolla is a word used in Iceland for all sorts of round bread, whether sweet or savoury. The Bolludagsbolla, however, is something special. It’s a glorious choux pastry bun traditionally filled with jam and whipped cream and topped with a chocolate glaze (although in later years bakers have been experimenting with all sorts of fillings). It can be made at home or bought from a bakery, and its only flaw is … it’s only served on Bolludagur.
Eating bollur (the plural form) is great, but Bun Day is about so much more. Tradition dictates that one cannot purchase one’s own bolla; if one manages to spank someone before they get up in the morning, for example, they owe you a bolla (a clever way of circumventing the stipulation mentioned above). Children all over Iceland arm themselves with a Bolludagsvöndur (a paper paddle especially made for the occasion) on the Sunday before Bolludagur. When they wake up the following day, they creep into their parents’ room and spank them repeatedly while yelling “Bolla!” over and over again. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to start Monday morning?
*It’s interesting to note that Bun Day and Mardi Gras in Iceland have gradually reversed roles. Bun Day is the rough equivalent of Shrove Tuesday (also known in Commonwealth countries and Ireland as Pancake Tuesday or Pancake Day), i.e. the day in February or March immediately preceding Ash Wednesday, which is celebrated in some countries by consuming pancakes.
Want to make your own bollur? Here’s a recipe!
Recipe for Vatnsdeigsbollur (Buns or Cream Puffs)
- 4 dl water
- 160g margarine
- 250g flour
- ¼ teaspoon baking powder
- 5 eggs
We start by mixing water with butter in a pot, bringing it to boil. Add the flour and baking powder and mix fiercely, until the mixture gathers up in a ball of dough when you stir it. Remove from heat and let cool for a while. Add the eggs, one by one, stirring well in between each one. Pipe the dough on a baking sheet (or spoon it on if you’re not that fussy about their shape), and be careful to keep a good space between them, the puff part of the name is there for a reason. Bake for 30-35 minutes at 210°c or until golden brown. Be careful not to open the oven before you think the puffs are ready! The outer crust must be well baked so the puffs hold their structure and don’t collapse in on themselves.
For the perfect Icelandic bolla, fill the puff with jam and whipped cream and top it with chocolate. If you’re feeling adventurous, fill them with whatever you like! Caramel pudding, Ice cream, and Nutella all spring to mind.
This brilliant recipe is borrowed from www.eldhus.is and the sender is Linda. We recommend that website for an array of nice Icelandic recipes.
Sprengidagur (Mardi Gras)
Sprengidagur, literally “Exploding Day,” is Iceland’s version of Mardi Gras. Residents celebrate Sprengidagur by eating as much as they can – of corned (salt-preserved) lamb (sometimes horse) and split pea soup. It’s delicious. Sprengidagur falls on the Tuesday after Bolludagur (February 25, 2020). On Sprengidagur, every Icelandic home, as well as most restaurants, is thick with the aroma of salted meat and peas. Why Exploding Day? Simple: one eats until one feels as if one is about to explode (think Monty Python’s Mr Creosote). Remember, Sprengidagur arrives on the heels of a day dedicated to stuffing one’s face with an obscene amount of cream puffs.
As previously mentioned, Lent is not something that the Icelanders observe, not anymore at least; for some reason, however, they still hold sacred a special day for filling up on treats before Lent. It’s a celebration of gluttony, so enjoy it. We suggest visiting the nearest restaurant and inquiring if they’re serving saltkjöt. If they’re not, there’s probably another one close by that is.
Öskudagur (Ash Wednesday)
Ash Wednesday is, in most countries, a solemn day. Not so much in Iceland. Children dress up in costumes and sing songs for candy. It’s sort of like the Icelandic version of Halloween, without the pagan undertones. The children limit their solicitations to shops and businesses* (In Reykjavík and the bigger towns, at least) so Laugavegur and the shopping malls are filled with kids of all ages, in costumes of all shapes and sizes. The children are expected to earn their candy by singing a song: a tradition that excites the young ones, but most adults dread it, especially those working in commerce.
If by any chance you are travelling to Iceland with a child, you might want to look into this. If not, keep this in mind when picking a day to go grocery shopping. Öskudagur always falls on a Wednesday, so the day is mostly for children, not adults, and it’s celebrated with candy, not alcohol.
*Recently, locals in Reykjavík have begun creating special Halloween maps on Google where interested parties may opt-in for trick-or-treating.