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Twelfth Night – The Hidden People Holiday

brenna
© Gúnna @ Flickr

Icelanders are a predominantly Christian nation and we celebrate Christmas the 25th of December. We are, in fact, so into Christmas that the celebration lasts for thirteen more days after that, ending on Þrettándinn, an Icelandic holiday. Þrettándinn, literally translates as “The thirteenth” but is more commonly known as “Twelfth Night” in the English-speaking world. Christmas is a Christian holiday, but in Iceland, Twelfth Night is the Hidden People holiday, it belongs to the elves.

Þrettándinn was originally celebrated as the birthday of Christ, according to the old Roman/Julian calendar. In the 6th century, that calendar was shifted to the one we know today: the Gregorian calendar. Thereby, Christmas was moved to it’s current date (25th of December), but leaving the 6th as a holiday as well. You can never have too many holidays, right?

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Þrettándinn is a very mysterious time of year in Iceland. According to folk tales, cows can talk, seals shed their skin and become human, the night dew has healing powers, your dreams can tell the future and if you sit on a crossroad this night you have a chance of meeting the elves, who give you gifts. Usually, you can’t accept the gifts until dawn. If you’re tempted earlier, the elves will drive you mad (as you see, we’re not talking Lord of the Rings elves here, this is serious stuff). This is also the day the elves move house, (even though they actually live in stones). On Þrettándinn, the last of the thirteen Icelandic Yule Lads goes back to the mountains. They come to town one by one before Christmas and then leave the same way, Kertaskníkir being the last one. There are many more folktales regarding Þrettándinn, the question is if people actually believe in them. What do you think?

We have many traditions on Þrettándinn. Most families get together and have a big dinner, followed by going to big bonfires, in honour of the elves. The traditions are similar to New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn is sometimes referred to as a second New Year’s eve. By the bonfire, people sing elf songs, and Elf Queens and Kings often make an appearance. Þrettándinn is also a perfect evening for finishing shooting up the rest of the New Year’s fireworks, as it’s the last day you can do it legally.

Icelandic Christmas Traditions

Since this day marks the final day of Christmas, there’s also the mundane task of taking down all your Christmas decoration. This is it. Reality kicks in. Now it’s back to work, school and other serious duties. No more eating cookies all day while watching Harry Potter movies. Well, I don’t know what your Christmas vacation looks like, but that’s pretty much all I do.

If you find yourself in Iceland on Þrettándinn, why not join in our Hidden People holiday. Look up the sky for fireworks (and the Northern Lights of course), go dancing around a bonfire, but watch out for the elves, please!