There are several Icelandic holidays. We have the traditional ones, Christmas and Easter and such like but we also celebrate the First Day of Summer!
Nýársdagur – New Year’s Day – 1. January
Let’s start at the beginning! January first is a public holiday in Iceland. Most people use it to sleep in, get over their hangover, make resolutions to never drink again, and buy gym memberships.
Þrettándinn – 12th night – 6. January
We call Twelfth Night “the Thirteenth,” it being the thirteenth (and last) day of Christmas. It’s become the holiday of Icelandic folklore, especially the elves and the hidden people. This is the last day you can legally ignite fireworks, and there are usually bonfires. People sing new year’s songs dedicated to the elves and sometimes the king and queen of the elves even show up!
There are a lot of folktales concerning the Thirteenth. Cows can talk on this night, seals shed their skin and become human, and if you sit at a crossroads, the hidden people will offer you gifts. Be careful not to accept them, though, ‘cause they will drive you mad (if you weren’t before, sitting on crossroads looking for elves like a fool). This is also the day the elves move house, which makes you wonder how they have time to spend all night offering you gifts…
Þorri – Mid-January to Mid-February
Þorri (remember, Þ is pronounced th) is one of the months in the old Norse Calendar, roughly equivalent to modern day February. It’s celebrated it with “Þorrablót” where people gather and eat all the weird traditional foods of Iceland, like fermented shark, lamb heads, and pickled rams’ testicles. Yummy! It’s a similar tradition to the Scottish Burns day, a festival to celebrate our heritage.
Bolludagur, Sprengidagur & Öskudagur – Cream puff day, Bursting day & Ash Wednesday – Monday-Wednesday in Feb-March.
This trio of holidays is every child’s dream.
• On cream puff day, you get to wake up and spank you parents with a stick, and the more spanks you give them, the more cream puffs you get. (No, really).
• On Bursting-day you eat salted lamb and lentil soup until your belly aches.
• And then on Ash Wednesday you dress up in a costume and sing at local stores till they give you candy to shut you up.
Like the better-known carnivals, these are movable feasts, taking place seven weeks before Easter.
Bjórdagurinn – Beer Day – 1st of March
Beer was actually illegal until the year 1989 in Iceland(!). Let that sink in for a minute. U2, Tom Cruise, and Will Smith all have careers longer than beer’s history in Iceland. Beer was legalized the same year Madonna released the album Like a Prayer, same year as The Little Mermaid. The ban was officially lifted on March 1st, so, naturally, we celebrate March 1st every year by drinking (too much) beer.
HönnunarMars – DesignMarch – March
The month of March is a festival of design – fashion, furniture, you name it. Look out for details in our event calendar leading up to it.
Páskar – Easter – March/April
Easter is a big holiday in Iceland and each day has a different function. For many, it’s their favourite holiday because Christmas can have a lot of stress with shopping and preparing parties, but Easter is a chance to chill. And, of course, kids love it for all the gigantic chocolate eggs.
Maundy Thursday is a public holiday on a weekday, and you better believe there will be a party downtown the night before. The same is true for the “second day of Easter” – that is the Monday after Easter, which is a holiday here. This is a funny trend you will notice in a lot of our holidays – they are often from religious roots, but these days people mostly use them as an excuse for drinking. There are a lot of religious- and civil confirmations in this period as well, so Icelanders are often occupied with family parties.
Sumardagurinn fyrsti – The First Day of Summer – First Thursday after April 18
It’s summer if we say it’s summer. Listen, don’t come over here with your highfalutin definitions of summer such as having “sun” or “warm weather,” this is our country, and we’ll decide when it’s summer, alright?
Just kidding. Our “first day of summer” is according to the old Viking calendar, which had only two seasons, summer and winter. So it’s more like “First Day of Mid-spring.”
Verkalýðsdagurinn – Labour Day – May 1st
Iceland was officially neutral during the Cold wars and there was a strong community of Communist sympathisers here, so it should be no surprise that Labour day is a public holiday here. The funny thing is that I used to work as a manual labourer, and it usually seemed we were the only people who didn’t take the day off. (Yay capitalism!)
There are brass bands and a protest procession down Laugavegur high street on this day. Icelanders usually don’t protest unless there’s something remarkable going on, (such as financial crashes or shady offshore dealings in government), so most years we just keep all our frustrations to ourselves until labour day, and then we all march politely protesting whatever comes to mind – sometimes completely opposite of the people marching with us. It’s…. kinda weird, actually.
Listahátíð – Reykjavík Arts Festival – May-June
This multidisciplinary festival of the arts has been celebrated since 1970, with a focus on encouraging innovation and collaboration in and between all forms of art. What that means for you is a packed program all over Reykjavík with all different kinds of art.
Uppstigningardagur & Hvítasunnudagur – Resurrection day and Whit Sunday vol. 1 and 2 – 40, 50 and 51 days after Easter
In the tradition of religious holidays now mostly used for drinking, Resurrection day is 40 days after Easter, and Whit Sunday 10 days after that. We get Whit Monday off work as well, which means it’s a big 3-day party weekend. Most people don’t really know what they’re celebrating anymore, but they sure do like to celebrate whatever it is.
Sjómannadagurinn – Fisherman’s Day – First Sunday of June
Iceland is founded on fishing. Hence, we have a day celebrating fishermen and the fish they catch for us. There are parties in every fishing village, including Reykjavík, which hosts the Festival of the Sea.
Þjóðhátíðardagurinn – National Day – June 17th
Iceland was ruled by the king of Denmark until 1944. That’s probably after your grandparents were born, maybe even your parents. We celebrate our Nationhood on June 17th with parades, concerts, helium balloons and too much sugar in the city centre all day. While June 17th, 1944 is when Iceland gained independence from Denmark, December 1st, 1918 is actually arguably more important, politically speaking, as that was when Iceland became a sovereign nation (see more below).
Various Music Festivals – June-July
There are a number of music festivals in July including:
• Secret Solstice, around the solstice 21 of June.
• Eistnaflug metal festival in Neskaupsstaður.
• Bræðslan – the smelter – in Borgarfjörður Eystri.
• The first weekend in August is a three-day weekend and several towns in Iceland celebrate with music festivals.
• Look out for more on festivals – If we haven’t covered them in our Event Calendar already, we will write about upcoming 2017 festivals as their details are confirmed when they get nearer.
Various Holidays in Iceland in August
Shopkeeper’s weekend – first Monday in August
This three-day weekend has become a huge travel time for Icelanders, both for getting away with their families, but more famously for the number of festivals in different parts of the country. These include the famous Þjóðhátíð in the Westman Islands, the Innipúkinn festival in Reykjavík and more. Like labour day, most stores ironically enough stay open through this holiday, even though it was originally conceived as a break for shopkeepers.
Reykjavik pride – first week of August
Reykjavik is one of the most LGBT+ friendly cities in the world, and Reykjavik pride has turned into a family festival where kids and grandmas come downtown to watch the parade and celebrate diversity.
Culture night – early August
All across central Reykjavík, there are cultural events and celebrations in the streets and squares, in museums, businesses, and residential gardens. The main objective of Reykjavík Culture Night is to deliver a diverse and rich offering of cultural events from 1-11pm, ending with a magnificent firework show by the harbour. This is also the day of the Reykjavík City Marathon.
Fyrsti vetrardagur – First Day of Winter – October 21-27 (Moveable feast)
Much like the first day of summer, we have a designated first day of winter, the date of which decided with complicated mathematics based on the old Viking Calendar. Look out for free meat soup in downtown Reykjavík!
Hrekkjavaka – Halloween – October 31st
Iceland does not have a long history of celebrating Halloween, but in recent years this American holiday has been making inroads, particularly in the form of costume parties at local bars and pubs.
Iceland Airwaves – early November
The annual Iceland Airwaves is the biggest music festival in Iceland, with over 200 gigs from up-and-coming, obscure and world-famous bands – and that’s not even mentioning the huge off-venue scene.
Fullveldisdagurinn – Sovereignty Day – December 1st
Iceland gained political independence from Denmark in stages, starting with home rule in 1904. While full independence from the Danes was achieved in 1944, December 1st, 1918 was when Iceland was recognised by Denmark as a sovereign state. It meant that although they were still subjects of the Danish king, they could rule their own affairs. It’s not an official holiday so not much happens on this day, but public offices and schools are likely to be closed, though stores and restaurants will probably stay open.
Jólin! – Christmas! – December 24th-January 6th
We have already written in-depth coverage of Icelandic Christmas traditions, but the short story is this. There are 13 Yule Lads (our version of Santa Clause), who start putting small toys in kids’ shoes for 13 days before the holiday. Their trollish mother, Grýla, eats naughty kids, and the Christmas Cat eats kids who don’t get clothes for Christmas presents, so you wonder why there are any kids around at all!
We celebrate the big party on the evening of December 24th like the rest of Scandinavia, but we have an unusual festival on the 23rd, called Þorláksmessa, where we eat terribly smelly skate fish at skate fish parties. The 25th and the 26th are public holidays as well.
Christmas is a family holiday, but some people party downtown on the 23rd, 25th, and/or 26th. You will find many things closed, but check in with us about tour availability and which restaurants will remain open during the holidays.
In the days and weeks leading up to Christmas there are usually lots of Christmas concerts, so look out for those on our Event Calendar.
Gamlársdagur – New Year’s Eve – December 31st
New Year’s eve is a big party like in most countries. Clubs and bars in the city centre have special events after midnight. Also look out for bonfires and amazing fireworks all over the city – there are no fireworks displays, rather people light their own at midnight, resulting in a beautiful cacophony of noise and colour. There are many traditions of elves and hidden people and other magical mischief-makers on New Year’s, much as on 12th night.