This post is the third one in our new series in four parts, covering customs and traditions in Iceland. Here we cover sports, religion and clothing but the other parts focus on festivals and holidays, literature, music and language and food and drink.
- An Introduction to Iceland’s Customs and Traditions (Part I) – Festivals and Holidays
- An Introduction to Iceland’s Customs and Traditions (Part II) – Icelandic Literature, Music and Language
- An Introduction to Iceland’s Customs and Traditions (Part IV) – Food and Drink
Sports, Religion and Clothing
The three main topics covered here are not related like the topics covered in the other three articles in this series, it is more of an “other” category in this context. Handball and football are the most popular sports in Iceland to watch. In terms of training sports, football is the most popular sport followed by golf and gymnastics (2021 data from The National Olympic and Sports Association of Iceland). Skiing and other winter sports are also popular but relatively few people are training compared with the most popular sports. Swimming pools are vastly popular but swimming as a sport is relatively small.
Religion has been gradually getting weaker through the decades, partly through competition from other activities. Churches used to serve a social function in the community but this is not the case anymore, with members of the state church getting fewer every year.
Clothing specific to Iceland was common in the old time but nowadays, people are most commonly dressed similar as in any other Western country. Below, we take a closer look at sports, religion and clothing in Iceland.
Handball is sometimes called the national sport and a large part of the population watches our national team playing in tournaments on TV, but most people don’t follow the local league.
Football is the most popular sport in Iceland and watching the English top flight football has been very popular for decades here. A former footballer and a commentator legend in Iceland that recently passed away, Bjarni Fel, has been given credit for raising this interest for English football in Iceland in the beginning. In some ways, he could be labelled the Icelandic version of John Motson. The Guardian wrote this piece about Bjarni Fel in 2016.
Liverpool is the most popular English club in Iceland, closely followed by Manchester United. Chelsea gained many supporters as well when Eidur Gudjohnsen played for them from 2000 to 2006. Football’s popularity in Iceland spiked when the national men’s team qualified for Euro 2016 and more kids started practising football. The women’s national team has been more successful than the men’s team for several years now though and further increased interest from girls in practising it. The authorities have also taken part in the wave and built a range of indoor football halls around the country, vastly improving training facilities in wintertime.
Skiing and snowboarding are popular due to the climate and snow in the winter months. Climate change has reduced the period for skiing in recent years but the most popular skiing area near Reykjavík, Bláfjöll, now has an artificial snow machine for when the slopes are sparse.
Íslensk glíma (e. Icelandic wrestling) has been with us since the commonwealth age. The first settlers are thought to have brought with them the basic wrestling from the Nordics as well as British wrestling methods, where these merged and evolved into grabbing a hold of the opponent’s clothing and various wrestling tricks that have then evolved through the decades into rigorous Icelandic wrestling techniques and agility we know today.
Swimming pools and geothermal spas
One of the most distinctive cultural phenomena about Iceland is the swimming pool culture. The pools are cosy places to relax and/or socialise when it’s cold and dark outside and even more popular in the summer when the weather is better.
We have a Christian Protestant national church, but religiosity is on the decline in society. Every child born automatically becomes a member of the national church unless the parents have specified something else. In effect, most people are atheist, which is reflected in that more and more people have chosen to sign out from the national church in recent years. Now, the percentage of residents in the national church is under 60% while in 1992 it was over 90%. However, many people don’t want to leave the church despite not really being religious, because people use its services for confirmations, weddings and funerals and attending a mass on Christmas is still considered an indispensable part of it for many people, even though most of them never go to a general mass on other times of year.
Paganism used to be the dominating religion in Iceland but now only has between five and six thousand registered members of the community (ca. 1% of the population).
Lopapeysa is what we call traditional woollen sweaters, with various patterns and often in nature’s colours such as black, white, brown, dark green and more. Probably the majority of the Icelandic population considered them tacky for a few decades until 15-20 years ago when they started their revival, helped by the tourism boom in Iceland but probably more by increased emphasis on sustainability, natural materials and local production.
Even though we have these traditional clothing items, the most common everyday clothing is similar as in other Western countries.