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Celebrating Easter in Iceland

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

Linguists maintain that the English word for Easter derives from the name of the Anglo Saxon maiden of spring, Ostara. The month of April was dedicated to her. Before Christianity, people celebrated the coming of spring in March around the Spring Equinox.

In our modern culture, eggs, chicks and rabbits symbolize Easter, and during the pagan era, these same items symbolized spring, new life and fertility. Among many ancient cultures, the egg symbolized life.

The custom to give an egg in the spring was practiced in several ancient civilizations such as the Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Persian. The tradition of giving Easter eggs is relatively recent in Iceland. It was introduced here in the early 20th century. The custom is much older in Europe.

In the Middle Ages, tenants had to pay taxes to landowners a few times a year. Eggs were coveted in the spring when the hens began to lay eggs after the usual winter break. The spring payment was usually in eggs.

Early on, the tradition formed that the landowners would give to the poor a fifth of the eggs they received from the tenants. This is possibly where the custom of giving Easter eggs to the children began!

Confectionery manufacturers in Central Europe began to produce Easter eggs in the 19th century, but chocolate Easter eggs were introduced in Iceland around 1920.

How do Icelanders nowadays observe Easter? Is the Christian message of Easter lost in modern Iceland?

This is Grímur Dagur, my grandson, happy with an Easter egg he found.

Some Icelanders participate in a church service on Easter Sunday morning, but people were obliged to attend earlier in our history. The message of Easter is a celebration of life, life eternal, and the renewal of life.

Winter in the north is long, but on December 21st, the sun begins to ease its way back north. On April 1st, 13 ½ hours of sunshine are possible in Iceland. It is customary for Icelanders to get five days off from work at Easter. There is still enough snow on the ski slopes to enjoy skiing and many families go skiing. Other people go hiking or simply enjoy the outdoors. The wind may still be cool and the ground and the hills are not yet green, but we know that soon the miracle will happen. We will once again be allowed to witness the grass and plants that disappeared into the ground in the fall rise up again. The message of Easter is certainly not lost to the modern Icelander!

When telling stories to children, I try to weave some history into the story. I attempt to plant the thought that they belong, that they are one of the generations that have lived in this country, on this earth. In a sense, I am “shrinking” history by telling them, without saying so, that events that happened in the past are not so distant when we look closer. We are bound to those who came before us the same way as our descendants will be bound to us.

Here is Bryndís and her family with chocolate eggs found during the hunt.

Everyone will have an egg, break it while they have a festive breakfast together, and read aloud the proverbs found in each egg. It is fun for everyone!

I had been telling my two granddaughters, Bryndís and Snæfríður, about the Viking and poet Egill Skallagrímsson, IR # I135557. He is their “grandfather by 30 generations through his daughter Þorgerður. (This is difficult to understand when you are only 6 or 7 years old.) In his old age, Egill lived at Mosfell with his adopted daughter Þórdís. When he died, he was put to rest in a mound on Tjaldanes in Mosfellsbær. I lived in Mosfellsbær at that time, and my family had come from Höfn in Hornafjörður, where they were living, to stay with me for the Easter vacation. Easter Sunday morning was a beautiful spring morning, sunny and filled with the promises of the coming summer. I decided to take the girls to Tjaldanes and Mosfell while dinner was cooking. I stopped the car by Tjaldanes, and Snæfríður, interested as always, called, “I want to see Egill.”

“Snæfríður dear, Egill is not here anymore,” I said.

“Oh, did he rise just like Jesus?” asked the child.

The girls and I had an interesting conversation on that Easter Sunday morning. We contemplated, among other things, that Jesus walked around in Galilee teaching people and healing the sick a thousand years before Egill moved to Mosfell. Now another good thousand years had passed when we visited Egill’s mound, where he was put to rest. Yet, in spite of all those years, we felt close to these people and could even trace how we are related to Egill.

The two girls are adults now. They have the best education from good universities, but I am quite confident that the discussion we had that Easter Sunday morning is still somewhere in a safe place in their very active brains. Such is the harvest grandmothers and grandfathers are allowed to enjoy.


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