Icelandic Winter Traditions

New Years eve, and the few days leading up to it, are very explosive, literally. Icelanders buy hundreds and hundreds of tons of fireworks and explode them downtown, in backyards, harbours, farms, you name it. Reykjavik is the only city in the world where I can actually hear midnight coming, as the fireworks get more and more intense around Hallgrimskirkja, the loudest climax is the moment when the New Year has arrived.

The Christmas Market in Hafnafjordur

With 26 days of Christmas, there are a lot of traditions that Icelandic people keep up to fill the dark winter season. There’s even a small Christmas Market ´Jólaþorpið´started in Hafnafjordur, and free ice skating in Ingolfstorg downtown for all the days in December. Then of course there are the famous, or infamous, Yule lads, the 13 Christmas elves who each have a special, mischievous role to play. There´s the hungry ones: Sausage Stealer, Skyr Gobbler, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Meat Hook, who loves smoked lamb, and Stubby, who likes eating pan crusts.

There´s the creepy ones, Sheep harassing Sheep-Cote-Clod, Door Sniffer and the Window Peeper. Then there’s the annoying ones: the noisy Door Slammer, Gully Gawk who likes to jump out and scare people, and Candle Sneaker, who’s also hungry because they’re used to stealing candles made of animal fat and eating them.

ice skating in Ingolfstorg

These fine examples of Icelandic folklore are the sons of a large, ugly, child-eating troll named Gryla, and her black cat eats Children who don’t receive any new clothes for Christmas. The Yule lads are not all bad – they bring down a present to put in your shoe, one by one, for the 13 days leading up to Christmas, unless you misbehave – then you get a potato or a piece of coal. Then 13 days after Christmas, the Yule lads return back to Gryla in her mountain, and the last day of Christmas is Jan 6, but its only a few weeks to wait until Thorrablot, Icelands other, rather unappealing, winter tradition.

Thorrablot used to be a pagan festival, dedicated to pagan gods in the fourth month of winter, previously known as Thorri. It’s basically a midwinter party (end-Jan to mid Feb in the modern day calendar) dedicated to eating sour and fermented foods, the same ram testicles, sheep head, rotten shark, liver and blood sausages as the vikings ate before the modernisation or Christianisation of Iceland. Its also a drunken time, when farmers and fishermen and city folk alike gather in huge groups (a dinner for hundreds of people sometimes), organising with the next county or community to make sure they don’t hold the festival on the same night, so that everyone can go to more Thorrablots and drink enough beer and brennivin to wash all the sour food down and hangover away. Sounds like a blast, right?

midday in midwinter

My favourite Þorrablóts are happening around Feb 1st in the north of Iceland, be sure to check out Varmahlíð or Hunaver´s schedule, or just search Thorrablot in Facebook events to be sure to find the one closest to you. Or, if sour food isn´t for you, there´s always hottubs and the outdoor bathing culture we all love and need to get us through a long Icelandic winter.

Another Icelandic summer comes to an end

The definition of summer in Iceland isn’t very defined. Summer is when its not winter. Its when the grass is greenish, the moss turns neon, and the leaves are alive. It’s a time when the temperature can go higher than 10 degrees (but not necessarily). The sun shines and its rays actually give off heat (and a tan!). The average temperature in June is only 11 degrees. Anything over 18 degrees is kind of a heat wave, and Icelanders lose their clothes as easily as we lose the nights. This year, summer came in May, when the countryside dethawed and it stopped getting dark.

Hiking Fimmvörðuháls with my best friend Moli

This is a time when Icelanders seem to come out of hibernation. After 8 months of winter, holed up in that thing called ‘real life,’ then people come out to play. Then the days revolve around hiking, horsebackriding, summerhouses, camping, fishing, barbeques and no need for much sleep. And much more than that, summer means festivals.

on horse tour in Mývatnssveit

Now that summer is gone, we start looking forward to those holidays and festivals next summer. Iceland is probably the only country I know of that actually has a national public holiday for the first day of summer, and this year it was April 20th. For some reason other than religious ones, Ascension day (May 25) is the first long weekend where traffic jams to get north out of town can build up from the Hvalfjordur tunnel all the way to Mosfellsbaer.

Menningarnótt with my sister and oldest friend from Canada

Downtown Reykjavik is a family friendly party ground, with tens of thousands of people flooding the streets and Arnarholl, on only a few days a year. June 17th, Independence day, is the first major summer event. Ironically, the Gay Pride parade has higher attendance, and rainbow coloured balloons and confused gender identities make people of all ages happy. Menningarnott in mid August is the most drunken and dancy festival, and at this time of summer, short nights have started to reappear and it’s the first time that lighting fire works makes sense. Its also around then that the first northern lights show up, making tourists very happy that they don’t have to return to Iceland in midwinter to check that off their bucket list.

Herjólfsdalur filling up for Þjóðhátíð

The most defining part of summer for me, and many other Icelanders, is unquestionably Þjóðhátíð. Literally translated, this just means ´the nations holiday,´ and is held all around Iceland around the end of July/beginning of August, but the biggest one is always in Vestammanaeyjar. My father is from Vestmannaeyjar, which makes about 24% of the population my aunts, uncles and second or third cousins. This sleepy island on the south coast has a year-round population of around 4,000, but during Þjóðhátíð, it can swell to 16,000, perhaps even as many as 20,000 this year.

seaswimming beach days in Reykjavik… not as warm as they look but still an important part of every good summer

You know summer is coming to an end when the next festival people are gearing up for is Airwaves, which happens annually at the end of October. Airwaves is even bigger than Þjóðhátíð, but doesnt quite have the same ´Icelandicness´ to it with all those tourists and international bands… and lack of lopapeysas (hand knit sweaters with Grandma´s typical patterns and barn colours). The countdown to summer 2018 has officially begun.