top of page

Iceland's January Holidays

According to the old Norse calendar, the year is made up of Winter and Summer. January is the halfway point of winter, and several holidays and feasts are held during this month. Nýársdagur, or New Year’s Day, and Þrettándinn, or Epiphany (January 6), are the final holidays of the Yule season. However, there are several more this month, some well-known and others more obscure, but all have a theme of light overcoming darkness.

First is Eldbjargarmessa, Eldbjörg Day on January 7th. While the name has been in Icelandic almanacs since 1837, there are barely any sources about the observance of this day. Eldbjörg can be translated as ‘fire salvation’; it is not clear if it means saving the fire from going out or protecting people from harm by fire. There are two theories about the day's origin: it was to commemorate the end of Christmas festivities, or it may have been part of a pagan midwinter festival after the darkest day of winter has passed.

January 13th is Ray Day (Geisladagur). Once again, it is not clear how this day came about, but it is referred to in Sturlunga Saga and the Bishops’ Saga. In the 14th century, January 13th became a baptismal day and was known as a day of light. It is also possible that it refers to the star of Bethlehem, which the three Wise Men saw in the East after the birth of Jesus.

January 20th is the first day of Þorri and Bóndadagur (Husband’s Day or Farmer’s Day). The following are excerpts from pages 14 - 17 of a wonderful book, Icelandic Feasts and Holidays, Celebrations, Past and Present, by Árni Björnsson, published in 1980 by Iceland Review History Series.

"It is an age-old custom to celebrate the first day of Thorri. Jón Árnason’s Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales describe it as the duty of the farmer to welcome Thorri by rising earlier than anyone else. He was to get up and go out clad only in a shirt, barefoot and partly barelegged, for he was to wear only one leg of his underpants while the other was to be dragged behind. Thus attired, he was to . . . hop on one foot all around the house, dragging his underpants on the other, and bid Thorri welcome to his home. The first day is still called “husband’s day,” and on this day, the lady of the house is supposed to treat her husband exceptionally well.

In a 1728 letter, the Rev. Jón Halldorson writes that he does not know whether welcoming Thorri is an old custom or a newfangled idea of the common people. He states that he has no knowledge of sensible people participating in such frivolous customs and claims to be actually ashamed to put such nonsense to paper for distinguished people to read. He says that “because wintertime and weather in Iceland often depresses people severely, the lady of the house, in order to facilitate the relief or end of that condition, should go outside on the eve of Thorri’s arrival and invite it in with warm words … so that it might be mild and harmless to her and hers.”

These traditions were to befriend the spirits and bring good luck to the farm and home. In the late 14th century, the Flatey Book tells of old King Thorri, who made a sacrifice called a Thorrablot every year in the middle of winter. His daughter was named Goa (the name of the next month) and other royals mentioned were Aegir (Sea), Logi (Fire), Kari (Wind), Frosti (Frost), and Snaer (Snow). So, it seems that Thorri was some kind of winter spirit or weather god.

The word Thorrablot indicates that such ceremonies were customary at the time. These heathen ceremonies were prohibited when Christianity was adopted.

In the 1870s, when Iceland was struggling for independence, the idea seems to have been rekindled of making Þorrablót “according to ancient custom.”

In Akureyri, they have had a Þorrablót celebration every year since 1874 (the 1000th anniversary of the settlement of Iceland).

Toasts were made to the old gods and goddesses, the mother country, and prominent citizens. Thor, the thunder god, was honored, probably because it was a popular explanation that the name Thorri was for Thor. Writings suggest it was a way to celebrate that people had made it through the most challenging part of winter and that warmer days would soon be here.

In modern days, pampering your partner is encouraged, and many give a small gift or flowers. The food served at a Þorrablót is of traditional Icelandic dishes. It was prepared the way people did in earlier times when necessity demanded total utilization of their livestock, and there were no modern ways of preservation. Hangikjót (hung smoked lamb meat); whale pickled in whey, fermented shark, svid - singed and boiled sheep’s heads sawed in two, hrutspungar - sour rams’ testicles, and other soured, fermented, or dried food.

The final midwinter celebration is Sólardagurrin (Sun Day) or Sólarkaffi (Sun Coffee). Iceland has many deep, narrow fjords and valleys where the sun does not rise above the mountains for many weeks during the darkest winter days. When the sun finally reappears, the farm/household says farewell to the darkness with coffee and pancakes. As the date when the sun is seen again differs, the date of Sólarkaffi depends on the location. As people moved into towns and villages, it became more of a community event. In recent years, especially in Reykjavík, people who have migrated away from other parts of the country gather to drink sun coffee on a date close to the sun's reappearance in their home community.


Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

bottom of page