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An Introduction to Iceland’s Customs and Traditions (Part I)

This post is the first in our new series in four parts, covering customs and traditions in Iceland. Here we cover festivals and holidays but the other will focus on literature, music and language, sports, religion, clothing and food and drink.

Festivals and Holidays in Iceland

With a history stretching back to the Icelandic sagas, there are many interesting customs and traditions from our small nation. Some of them you may have heard of, such as our adventurous cuisine, but many others are less known! Here are some of the most interesting customs and traditions that you can experience in Iceland.

Þorrablót is a mid-winter festival that celebrates the old pagan month of Þorri. It is a time for feasting on traditional Icelandic foods, such as fermented shark, ram testicles, and singed sheep heads. Þorrablót is also a time for storytelling, singing and dancing.

Bóndadagur is Husband’s Day, celebrated on the first day of the old pagan month of Þorri, in the period from 19 to 25 January. On this day, wives and girlfriends give their husbands flowers or gifts and may also cook them a special meal. An interesting fact is that this word, bóndi, means farmer. Over time, it came to mean anyone who owned a house and when it entered into English, it gradually changed meaning. So a husband in English is really “house farmer!” Konudagur is Wife’s Day, celebrated on the first day of the old pagan month of Góa, a Sunday between 18 and 24 February. On this day, husbands and boyfriends give their wives flowers or gifts and may also cook them a special meal.

Öskudagur (Ash Wednesday), sprengidagur (Shrove Tuesday) and bolludagur (Bun Monday) are in a sequence of three days seven weeks before Easter. On öskudagur, children will dress up in costumes and go to companies to sing and get candy in return. It is a Monday in the 7th week before Easter (between 4 February and 10 March). Sprengidagur literally means “explosion day” and then people eat saltkjöt (salted lamb meat) and baunir (yellow split peas), more specifically peas soup, until they are about to explode. Certainly not a healthy tradition nor recommended by heart doctors, “but only happens once a year” is how many people justify it along with it being tradition of course. The many holidays that precede Easter also are subject to a lot of regional variation. Children from the Westfjords, for example, will generally dress up and sing on bolludagur instead of öskudagur.

Öskudagur (e. Ash Wednesday) - Carnival in iceland

The First Day of Summer is celebrated on a Thursday between 19 to 25 April. An old folk belief regarding this day says that if summer and winter freeze together, it signals a good summer. Freezing together meaning here that temperature on the night before The First Day of Summer goes below 0 degrees Celsius. Another folk belief regards the arrival of spring, that it comes with the golden plover. Local news will report every year when the first golden plover has been seen for this reason. We also have a poem about this belief and the first two lines read:

Lóan er komin að kveða burt snjóinn, 

að kveða burt leiðindin, það getur hún.

Or in English:

The golden plover is here to chant away the snow,

to chant away the boredom, she can do that.

The Eurovision Song Contest is celebrated to the fullest in Iceland, probably no country is as enthusiastic about it as Iceland. The streets are usually empty while the contest takes place, as everyone is gathered round watching the broadcast. Many people will host parties for the occasion. Whether people admit watching it is another story and some only watch the awarding of points at the end. For others, it is a guilty pleasure. Although Eurovision is a very big deal in Iceland, and Iceland has made it far in the contest on several occasions (including second place twice), Iceland has yet to take home a victory. The Icelandic Eurovision craze was the spark for the 2020 comedy film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga with Will Ferrell. The film is set in Húsavík in North Iceland and some of the residents have “used the fame” from the film, most notably when the bar & café Jaja Ding Dong opened in the same year, named after a silly song in the film.

Hatari represented Iceland at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2019

Sjómannadagurinn (e. Fisherman’s Day) takes place on the first Sunday of June every year and has been a tradition since 1938 when it was first celebrated in Reykjavík and Ísafjörður. 

International (especially American) influence is also increasingly visible in the past 10-15 years in that more Icelanders have started celebrating Valentine’s Day and Halloween. In the past 10 years or so we have seen Black Friday also becoming a thing in Iceland.

Verslunarmannahelgi (e. Merchants’ Weekend) is the biggest domestic travel weekend in Iceland, ahead of the first Monday in August. That Monday is called Commerce Day or the Holiday of the Merchants. This is a time when many Icelanders head out to the country to camp and relax with their friends and family. There are also many music festivals this weekend.

Rounding and round-ups (réttir) take place in September for the most part, when farmers need to collect their sheep to get them inside for the winter. For many rural communities, this is one of the biggest events of the year. Farmers will get together with their friends and family who help gather the sheep from their summer grazing pastures. After a hard day’s work, the community will in some cases get together and party long into the night in what are called réttaball, or round-up parties.

Icelandic sheep

The National Day (17 June). Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944 and this day celebrates the occasion. It is celebrated with marches in various towns, balloons and face paint for children.

The Pride Parade (Reykjavík Pride) is among the biggest celebrations in Reykjavík annually. Iceland was among the first nations to improve the rights of the LGBQT community and is considered one of the LGBTQ-friendliest countries in the world.

Þorláksmessa (e. Mass of St. Thorlac) is celebrated on 23 December by eating skate, soaked in ammonia. The smell is strong and not to everyone’s taste to say the least. Conflicts in apartment blocks are relatively common related to this smell that sneaks through every pore and tends to stay for days after the ray is cooked, in clothing, carpets etc.

Þrettándinn (e. Twelfth Night or Epiphany) is the thirteenth and last day of Christmas, celebrated with fireworks and taking down the Christmas tree and decorations. Many people choose to keep the fairy lights lit for longer though, until the end of February or even March as this is still a time of scarce daylight and people feel it lightens up daily life a little bit in this period.

Jónsmessa (e. Midsummer’s Day) is on June 24th, which is the brightest day of the year in Iceland when the sun never sets.

Christmas is a time of various traditions. Before Christmas, many people will bake cookies, seven types of cookies used to be the “golden standard” or even “bare minimum” but nowadays all the popular cookie types are readily available at the supermarket, so people may be tempted to save themselves the hassle of baking and go for convenience. 

Icelandic Christmas Traditions

New Year is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks but the strongest tradition is associated with a TV program called áramótaskaupið (e. The new year’s comedy), which over 90% of the population watches, even slightly more people than watch Eurovision Song Contest, the other linear TV program that has kept its popularity through the current age of streaming.

The last point here does not relate to holidays or festivals but Iceland has a reputation for being a peaceful and safe country and it has become common to let babies sleep outside in almost any weather. This comes as a surprise to many foreigners, but here it is considered healthy for the babies and good for their development as they are getting their good dose of fresh air and oxygen and therefore “sleeping like babies”. Another curious case for many foreigners is that many Icelanders in the countryside leave their doors unlocked as they trust their fellow citizens not to steal from them. Unfortunately this has become less common after a gang of burglars went around the country a few years ago, making use of unlocked doors. In Reykjavík, burglars checking for unlocked doors (easy targets in their eyes) have become so common that pretty much everyone keeps their doors locked.

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