This article was originally written by Hálfdan Helgason in 2006 as part of his regular newsletters.
This year, 2023, the first day of summer in Iceland is celebrated on Thursday, April 20nd.
Thursday April 20th, is the first day of summer according to the Old Icelandic Almanac. To old Icelandic tradition it may be counted the beginning of the year. Falling on a Thursday between April 19 and 25, this day, The First Day of Summer, is known from the earliest Icelandic records. The year was divided into summer and winter, and people counted their ages not in years but in winters. A boy or a girl of seventeen e.g., were – not seventeen years, but seventeen winters, they had survived seventeen winters. Actually, it was quite an achievement in the old days when children’s death was so common.
The First Day of Summer is also the first day of the month of Harpa. The derivation of this name is not clear; it may have been a reference to harsh spring weather, but was traditionally interpreted as the name of a young girl. While the month of Þorri was a man and the month of Góa was a woman, Harpa was sometimes called their daughter. Since the month of Harpa was widely believed to be a reference to a girl’s name, it is not surprising that the First Day of Summer became attached to young girls. On the first day of Harpa, also known as “yngismeyjardagur” or “Maiden’s Day”, young lads were supposed to welcome the “maiden,” Harpa, and to be particularly courteous and attentive to young girls. They, the girls, gave their compliment on “yngismannadagur” (Lads’ Day), the first day of the month of Einmánuður. While St. Valentine’s Day (February 14) was not known to Icelandic lovers, Maiden’s Day and Lads’ Day performed much the same function.
Beloved harbingur of summer – plover
Gifts were given on the First Day of Summer — the earliest evidence of this custom is from the 16th century. In the 19th century, Summer Gifts were still far more common than Christmas presents. These were usually gifts from parents to children, from husband to wife or vice versa, or from master to servant. While this custom has grown less common with the proliferation of gift-giving days (birthdays, Christmas etc.), Icelanders still invariably exchange wishes for a “happy summer.”
The various migratory birds have commonly been regarded as harbingers of summer in Iceland, e.g. the golden plover and the whimbrel. Although the golden plover might arrive before the last snow had fallen, the consensus was that summer had arrived in earnest when the whimbrel or snipe was seen.
It was commonly regarded as a good omen if summer and winter “froze together,” i.e. if there was a frost on the night before the First Day of Summer. A dish of water was usually left out in a sheltered place, to show whether the temperature dropped below freezing.
A light-hearted tradition attached to the First Day of Summer was to tell one’s fortune from the summer moon (i.e. the next moon after the Easter moon). After seeing the first new moon of the summer, one had to remain silent, and wait to be addressed. What was said could bode either good or ill. The most famous story of this kind is of a young, newly engaged girl, who saw the summer moon. When she sat down in a decrepit chair someone said to her. “Watch out, he’s unsteady” (chair is a masculine noun in Icelandic). Her sweetheart jilted her that summer.
Ref.: “High Days and Holidays in Iceland” by Dr. Árni Björnsson, published by Mál og menning 1995.
So, best wishes to all of you for a Happy Summer — no matter what the weatherman says, summer will come eventually.