Íslendingadagurinn - BEST DAY OF THE YEAR
By Doreen Borgfjord McFarlane
Every year, visitors, dignitaries, and volunteers from across Canada, Iceland, and the United States come together to celebrate two significant Icelandic Heritage events – the Deuce of August in Mountain, North Dakota (now in its 123rd year) and Íslendingadagurinn in Gimli, Manitoba (in its 134th). The Deuce of August is the oldest ethnic festival in the U.S. and Islendingadagurinn can boast being the second oldest continuous ethnic festival in all of North America!
The main events are on Saturday in Mountain and Monday in Gimli, although there are days of events before and after. It is just a three-hour drive between the two communities.
At both events, the Icelandic Roots genealogy team hosts a table where people can learn more about their family histories and the joys of being a member of Icelandic Roots. They also learn tips about how to use the database and find their famous ancestors, including Vikings, cousins in Iceland and anywhere in the world, interactive maps, and more.
The festivals in North America go back to 1874 when the Icelanders in Wisconsin held a special celebration on the same day as their countrymen in Iceland. King Kristján IX sent a decree that the Icelandic Parliament should be called into session for his visit. Then, on Sunday, August 2nd, all churches in the land were to hold a service because he was bringing a new constitution to Iceland. The Icelandic emigrants in Wisconsin knew about this celebration in Iceland and decided to hold a celebration on this same day. Ever since the second of August in North America has been known as 'The Day of the Icelanders.' “The Deuce,” as it is called by American Icelanders in Mountain, North Dakota, refers to August 2nd, 1874 — the day Iceland received an improved (though imperfect) constitution from its foreign ruler at the time, King Kristjan IX of Denmark. In Gimli, Manitoba, Canada, the day is called “Íslendingadagurinn,” or “The Day of the Icelanders.” Although the date is not an official holiday in Iceland, Icelandic settlements across North America have adopted it as their own.
When I remember Íslendingadagurinn, the celebration in Gimli Manitoba, all five senses are part of that powerful and beautiful memory: the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch.
Each year, the day began for my parents and me with the ninety-kilometer drive from Winnipeg, usually rushing to make it in time for the 10 a.m. parade. In later visits, it seemed there were a lot more Shriners in mini motorcycles than Vikings on floats. Still, the general theme of the parade was all things Icelandic, and there was always a sense of excitement as the crowds gathered and this day started.
From the parade site, we’d find our way to the park. When I was a child, there were towering pine trees, their cones and needles gently blanketing the surrounding grass. (This is my strongest memory of smell I carry from childhood: the beautiful odour of those pines in Gimli Park.) We’d seek out and claim a picnic table not far from where we’d parked the car, under one of those huge old trees. There, we’d enjoy a lunch provided by my non-Icelandic mother, who’d slaved for hours the day before, preparing food that I remember in detail: devilled eggs, ham sandwiches, and potato salad with thinly sliced radishes and green onion. For supper, we’d purchase and enjoy the uniquely Icelandic foods: rúllupylsa, hangikjöt, and, of course, for dessert, vínarterta!
As the day passed, we kids sought out various adventures. But, the focus of the day was what took place on the temporarily erected stage, starting at 2 pm. That stage always had the backdrop of large paintings that depicted the glory of Iceland, the waterfalls and hills and valleys. It was pure magic. The program began on time, with the crowd rising to its feet to welcome the arrival of the Fjallkona ("Lady of the mountain"), always a distinguished older woman in a full-length white gown with an elegant green full-length cape and wearing a white horned lace headdress. She was flanked by two RCMP officers in full red attire, followed by two beautiful young Icelandic Canadian women, also in white, her ladies in waiting.
Once the Fjallkona had taken her place on the ‘throne’ at centre stage, which had been empty all day until now (except for a few of us kids having tried it out), the Canadian and the Icelandic national anthem were fervently sung. Most years, a choir was present and, over the next couple of hours, various dignitaries had been invited to speak, as well as the Fjallkona herself. When I was a child, nearly all the speeches were in Icelandic. But, over the years, many more have been in English. Song sheets were distributed in both languages. Unfortunately, the last time I attended, I seemed to be the only person in the crowd able to sing the Icelandic songs. I guess such is the nature of assimilation into a new land, and many would say this is a good thing. When I was in my early twenties, I had been invited to sing in quartets in Icelandic, and both my father and Alma Gislason, my Icelandic voice teacher, had insisted my pronunciation be perfect. (I remember being quite terrified at the time, but those lessons have served me well.)
Another highlight was a second cousin. Arthur Reykdal, who taught Glima, a form of Icelandic wrestling in which two boys wrestle with two ankles bound together! He’d give his short speech on this Icelandic “art form “and then introduce young men who demonstrated.
We always knew that we would meet up with relatives on that special day. Some from nearby farms in the Arborg district would attend. Others could be all the way from Iceland on a memorable holiday. The touches included handshakes but mainly were warm hugs and, more often, fervent kisses. As a child and young teenager, I recall that this seemed a bit strange compared to the careful and cool ways people in the city interacted. Still, I knew the love was genuine and their interest in me was sincere.
As the dusk began to creep in and the early evening passed, my parents would decide it was time to head home to Winnipeg. We’d had a very long day out in the hot sun and there was a bit of a drive ahead of us. Every year as I grew, I found myself wishing more and more to stay longer in the park; to linger long enough for the band members to arrive in the dance pavilion and begin playing. More and more, I ached to stay long enough to have some handsome young man ask me to dance, to take me to the floor for a waltz or a fox trot. The very thought of dancing the night away with the adults became more and more appealing as each year passed. But, as long as we attended Islendingadagurinn, my parents always ended up making that wise decision to head home before dark in order to arrive safely.
To this very day, so many years from my childhood, I can still recall the exact feeling I had at the end of that special day every year. I felt tired. I felt warm. I felt loved. I felt satisfied that most of my dreams for the day had been fulfilled.
I also experienced a powerful sense of my own Icelandic-Canadian identity. I was still an only child from the city of Winnipeg, with no siblings and seldom seeing relatives. But, I also knew l was part of a mighty western Icelandic community of strong, proud people who had emigrated to this new land and had built good lives for themselves here. I was not alone.
Islendingadagurinn had a big part in forming my identity. I have since lived in many places but will always know that the little girl who attended once a year is who I really am.