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Unique Icelandic Holidays


By Sharron Arksey


Over the last decade, Icelandic Roots members have learned about the lesser-known holidays celebrated in Iceland throughout the year.


January 7, for example, is Eldbjörg Day. There are two theories about the day's origin: it was held 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. 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.


January 13 is Ray Day (Geisladagur). Once again, it is unclear 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 20 is the first day of Þorri and Bóndadagur (Husband’s Day or Farmer’s Day). According to the 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.”


Sólardagurrin (Sun Day) or Sólarkaffi (Sun Coffee)
Sólardagurrin (Sun Day) or Sólarkaffi (Sun Coffee)

The final midwinter celebration is Sólardagurrin (Sun Day) or Sólarkaffi (Sun Coffee). When the sun finally reappears after winter’s dark days, farms and households say 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. 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.


Bjordagur - Beer Day - SKÁL!
Bjórdagurinn - Beer Day - SKÁL!

NATIONAL BEER DAY ( Bjórdagurinn)

Until 1989, beer was prohibited in Iceland. Now every March 1, Icelanders celebrate Beer Day to commemorate the lifting of the ban that had been in force for 75 years. Iceland enforced total prohibition on all alcohol from 1915 to 1922, but beer was not on the approved list until 1989 because people were afraid that the low cost of beer would cause an increase in drinking. National laws did allow a 2.2% beer during the 75-year prohibition.


FIRST DAY OF SUMMER

The first day of summer in Iceland falls on a Thursday between April 19 and 25. In 2023, the holiday was April 20.


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.


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. 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 compliments 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.


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.


UPPSTIGNINGARDAGUR (ASCENSION DAY)

Uppstigningardagur means 'Climbing Up Day.' Many people in Iceland will have the following days off work: Ascension Day, Whit Sunday (Hvítasunna), and Whit Monday (Annar i hvítasunnu). These days are celebrated as national holidays, although nowadays, they are marked as secular rather than religious holidays.


FESTIVAL OF THE SEA

The first Sunday of June every year is known in Iceland as Sjómannadagurinn or Festival of the Sea. This day celebrates Iceland’s connection with the sea and remembers those who lost their lives to its fury.


“The ocean gives and the ocean takes” is a saying well-known in Iceland, particularly in the late 19th and well into the 20th century when the Icelandic fishing industry was booming. Being an island nation, the sea has always played an important part in the life of Icelanders and most Icelanders have at least one ancestor who was lost to the sea.

Every ship is docked in a harbor over the weekend. All seamen have the day off to enjoy the fun activities planned all over Iceland.


COMMERCE DAY

The first Monday of August is Commerce Day, a public holiday in Iceland since 1894. This creates a long summer weekend known as Verslunarmannahelgí (merchants’ weekend) and is similar to September’s Labor Day weekend in the United States and Canada. Many people choose this time to go camping or attend festivals and events held around the country.



The largest and best-known outdoor festival held during Verslunarmannahelgi is Þjóðhatið í Ejum (Festival of the Nation) in Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands).

Another popular event during Verslunarmannahelgi is the Innpúkkin Music Festival in downtown Reykjavík. The word ‘Innipúki’ refers to a person who would rather stay inside than venture out, so the concerts are indoors. However, outside the venues, you will find food, art, and clothing booths.


Finally, up in the north is the Ein Með Öllu family festival in Akureyri. Here, they have entertainment for children, a fairground, concerts, a fundraising event, ‘Moms and Muffins’ (mömmur og möffins). The Icelandic summer games are celebrated with a “footrace” on the church stairs, a bicycle challenge, and a tour. The festival finishes with a giant fireworks display.



HEAD DAY (Höfuðdagur) The celebration called Höfuðdagur (Head Day) is held August 29.

This is the day John the Baptist was killed by decapitation. Icelanders keep an eye on the weather during this day as old stories claim connections to weather patterns.

Modern meteorology confirms that as the sun sinks in the northern hemisphere, strong westerly winds in the upper atmosphere can affect weather patterns for weeks.

For Icelandic seamen and farmers, Head Day is an occasion to hope for three weeks of sustained good weather or to fear the opposite.


CULTURE NIGHT (Menningarnótt)

Reykjavík’s anniversary has been celebrated on August 18th since 1786 when the Danish King lifted the Trade Monopoly on Iceland and Reykjavík became an official town with a population of two hundred people.


In 1996, Reykjavík City Council created Menningarnótt (Culture Night) to celebrate Reykjavik’s anniversary. It is also the start of the city’s cultural year when theaters, museums, and other cultural institutions kick off their latest programs.

Culture Night is held on the first weekend after the 18th of August or on the 18th if it falls on a Saturday.


There are concerts, art shows, theater performances, guided tours, and much more throughout the day.



FIRST DAY OF WINTER

The first day of winter in Iceland always falls on the Saturday between October 21-27. In days of old, Icelanders celebrated with religious services and feasts and were joyful when the meat supply was at a high point. Without refrigeration and the difficulties in preserving and storing meat, it was important they enjoyed as much of the fresh meat as possible.



DAY OF THE ICELANDIC TONGUE (ICELANDIC LANGUAGE DAY)

Icelandic Language Day (Dagur Íslenskrar Tungu) is celebrated each year on November 16, the birthday of poet, author, and scientist Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845).



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