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Saint Thorlak’s Day – Þorláksmessa

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

Þorlákur Þorhallsson (Bishop Thorlakur) is the patron Saint of Iceland. Today we celebrate a holiday called Þorláksmessa (Thorlak’s Mass). Here is a photo of his statue at the Dómkirkja Krists konungs – Catholic Cathedral in Iceland.

This is the last day of Christmas preparations in Iceland. Most people in Iceland eat Skata (an ammonia smelling putrefied skate fish) on this day with boiled or mashed potatoes. Sometimes the skata is so strong (so putrefied) that when you take the first bite, it actually can numb your nose and throat. Some people in Iceland, especially those who live in apartments, have argued and debated about the cooking of this meal since the smell permeates to all corners of the building.

Þorlákur Þorhallsson was born in 1133 at Hlíðarendi in southern Iceland and died on the 23rd of December 1193. He was ordained as a deacon at the age of fourteen and a priest when he was eighteen. He established the first nunnery in Iceland, Kirkjubæjarklaustur, and was the first Abbot for the first Augustinian Canonry in Iceland founded at Þykkvabæ. The convent was abolished at the Reformation, when Iceland became a Lutheran country. Read more about the Last Catholic Bishop and his fight to remain Catholic.

Þorlákur Þorhallsson was consecrated Bishop in Norway on 2 Jul 1178 and was the Bishop of Skáhlolt in south Iceland for 15 years, until his death in 1193 at the age of 60. He was canonized in Iceland in 1198 and finally on the 14th of January in 1984, John Paul II declared Thorlak to be the Patron Saint of Iceland. You can read his Icelandic Saga to learn of the miracles he performed.

Skálholt was the ‘capital’ and center of power in Iceland for seven centuries and is historically, one of the most important places in our story. All the buildings now at Skálholt are new and you can attend church there each Sunday. There is a grave of Bishop Páll Jónsson, the successor of Saint Þorlákur, plus a tunnel dated at about the 13th century. Irish Papar are believed to have lived in the area before the Vikings arrived.

There is a folktale of some nuns who disobeyed the church teachings. Above the present day town, there is a beautiful waterfall called Systrafoss (Sister falls) and Systravatn (Sister lake) named after the nuns (sisters) of Kirkjubæ. The disobedient nuns were taken up to a big flat rock called Systrastapa (Sister Butte) where they were burned for their sins. In the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur is a tourist information center called Skaftárstofa (after the Skáfta River). Inside, you can watch a film about the history of the convent. It is very interesting.

Another story says that a pagan man called Hildir Eysteinsson decided to move to Kirkjubær. As soon as he touched the property of this sacred place, he died immediately and is buried on a rocky hill just east of the present town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. His burial site is called Hildishaugur (Hildir´s Mound).

We have so many stories, so many traditions, and so much to learn about our Icelandic story. I hope you enjoy learning more about our people, places, traditions, and stories here at Icelandic Roots.

Best wishes to you and your loved ones today on Þorláksmessa and tomorrow as we start Christmas festivities.

Gleðileg jól – Merry Christmas!

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