Icelandic Oddities: Unique and Somewhat Quirky Holidays



Icelandic Oddities: Unique and Somewhat Quirky Holidays

18.10.2020 | Lella Erludóttir

The population of Iceland may be just shy of 350,000 people, but this nation that knows the importance of celebrations. Having survived harsh winters, poverty, and famine for centuries, they celebrate victories and milestones like no other. Each year, Icelanders are involved in numerous celebrations and traditions that may seem quirky to an outsider but are certainly fascinating.

While most of these traditions have evolved to mark the changing seasons and celebrate the work of farmers and seafarers, others derive from the old Ásatrú Viking religion or Christian customs. Some of these traditions span centuries, having been passed down through generations, and many are also entirely unique to Iceland.

Here is a list of our favourite Icelandic‘s unique and somewhat quirky holidays.

1. Þorrablót - Thorri Feast

Þorrablót is a midwinter festival, named after the month of Þorri of the historical Icelandic calendar, spanning from mid-January to mid-February), and blót, which literally means sacrifice.

Þorrablót
Traditional Þorri food served in a trough. Photo from mbl.is

The Þorrablót is an evening with dinner where participants hold speeches and recite poems, originally to honour the Norse god Þór (Thor). Þorrablót has become the festival where Icelanders really celebrate traditional Icelandic foods and culinary history by serving Viking foods in troughs. On the menu, you will find items such as fermented shark, pickled ram‘s testicles, whale blubber, jellied sheep‘s head, blood sausage, and innards to name a few of the delicacies. This you wash down with Iceland‘s signature spirit, Brennivín (Black Death).

2. Bóndadagur – Husband’s Day

Bóndadagur, or Husband’s Day, takes place on the first day of Þorri, which is the fourth winter month. According to folklore, on this day, husbands are to wake up before everyone else. They shall put on a shirt, and shirt only. Their legs and feet should be bare, but they are to put on only one pant leg with the other one hanging and dragging it behind them. They shall then open up the front door, go outside and jump on one leg around the house to welcome Þorri to their home.
In more recent times Bóndadagur has become a day to appreciate husbands, or significant male others, where they enjoy special treatment and pampering. Often that includes receiving gifts or being cooked a delicious meal.

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3. Konudagur – Wife’s Day

Konudagur is the female equivalent to Bóndadagur. Konudagur takes place on the first day of the old month of Góa, the month right after Þorri. Just like husbands on Bóndadagur, wives are to be celebrated and pampered on Konudagur. For decades now, wives have received a bouquet of Konudagur flowers.

4. Sjómannadagur – Sailors‘ Day

Sjómannadagurinn
Sailors are Iceland's heroes, braving the ocean and harsh winds every day. Photo from menn.is.

The first Sunday of June each year is dedicated to seafarers and their families, honouring the role they have played in the country‘s history and survival. Communities in all ports of the country organise celebrations that include an action-packed weekend of sea-themed fun.

5. Þrettándinn – Twelfth Night

Þrettándinn
Twelfth Night is a magical night where many magical beings come to life. Photo from mbl.is.

Twelfth Night is also the thirteenth and last day of the traditional Icelandic Christmas season. The last Yule Lad returns to the mountains and many magical traditions are connected to this holiday. One can sometimes see references to this as elf queens and kings lead torch-lit parades and people sing elfin songs around bonfires. It is common to use up leftover fireworks from New Year‘s Eve to bid Christmas farewell. 

6. Bjórdagur – Beer Day

March 1st is an unofficial holiday in Iceland called Beer Day. On this day the people of Iceland celebrate by... drinking beer because, for the longest time, di couldn’t have any. For most of the 20th century, beer was illegal in the country. By celebrating Beer Day, people are honouring the elimination of the 74-year prohibition of beer that lasted from January 1st 1915 to March 1st 1989. Yes, 1989 was the year Icelanders allowed beer in their country.
Since 1989, there’s been a considerable amount of beer consumed in Iceland and in the past decade or so there’s been a huge rise of microbreweries across the country, all busy crafting and championing new and delicious Icelandic ales honouring Icelandic ingredients.

7. Sumarsólstöður - Summer Solstice

The summer solstice occurs each year between June 20th to 22nd on the longest day of the year with almost 24-hours of daylight in Iceland. However in Iceland summer solstice is celebrated on June 24th with a holiday called Jónsmessa, also known as Midsummer Night. According to Icelandic folklore, June 24th is one of four magical nights of the year in Iceland. During this magical night it is believed that cows can speak, seals will take on human form, and rolling around naked in the grass can cure people of their ailments.

8. Bolludagur – Bun Day

Icelandic children love the beginning of the Christian Lent when they get to spank their parents out of bed with a decorated ‘bun wand’ while shouting “Bolla! Bolla! Bolla!” (Bun! Bun! Bun!). For every strike to the butt, children get to eat a cream bun, so it’s quite a raucous start to the day. The delicious treats come shaped like chocolate eclairs or doughnuts and can be bought at bakeries around the country.
Every year Icelanders (a nation of 330,000 people) buy around one million buns from local bakeries, in addition to the untold quantities which are baked at home!

Bolludagur
On Bun Day you can get all sorts of delicious cream buns in bakeries around the country. Photo from grapevine.is.

Naturally, after Bun Day, comes Bursting Day (sprengidagur), when locals fill up on heavily-salted lamb and pea soup until their bellies burst

9. Öskudagur - Ash Wednesday

Öskudagur marks the first day of Lent in Western Christianity. The Icelandic tradition surrounding this day is somewhat fanciful; Young women would try and pin little bags filled with ashes onto the back of the boy they fancied without the subject of their infatuation noticing. Young men would try and do the same, but with pouches filled with pebbles.
In later years Öskudagur has to some extent become more like Halloween. School children will dress in costumes and go from store to store, singing in hopes of receiving candy.

10. Sumardagurinn fyrsti - The First Day of Summer

Sumardagurinn fyrsti
Sumardagurinn fyrsti celebrations start with a parade. Photo from kopavogur.is.

Icelanders are so excited about summer that we celebrate Sumardagurinn fyrsti in April, even though it may be snowing and freezing cold that day. According to the old Icelandic calendar, the year was divided into only two seasons, summer and winter, with the first Thursday after 18 April marking the point where summer begins. This day is still a public holiday, celebrated with colourful parades and a loud 'Gleðilegt sumar!' (Happy summer!) greeting. Parents also give their children summer gifts to celebrate this day, which marks the beginning of brighter and lighter days.

11. Verslunarmannahelgi – Merchant's Weekend

Verslunarmannahelgi is a three-day celebration that takes place at the beginning of August with the first Monday of August being Merchant‘s Holiday. This weekend has become Iceland‘s biggest travel weekend every year and in many destinations across Iceland it‘s celebrated with outdoor festivals.

12. Réttir - Sheep Round-Up

The sheep round-up or "réttir" takes place in September all over the country. The Icelandic sheep roam freely out in nature all summer. After the summer season, the farmers head out on horseback to find the sheep which are then gathered into a fold where they are sorted according to the farms they belong to.

Réttir
An aerial view of réttir. Photo from icelandair.is.

Not only the farmers participate, but also people from the city and elsewhere who like to get away from their daily routines to experience some country action and nurture their Icelandic roots in this special tradition.

13. Þorláksmessa – Mass of Saint Þorlákur

Þorláksmessa is an Icelandic holiday celebrated every December 23rd. The celebration honours Þorlákur Þórhallsson, bishop of Skálholt, why was canonized and recognized as the patron saint of Iceland in 1984. He died on December 23rd 1193.
It is tradition to eat putrid skate on this day, although many, especially members of the younger generation, find it a bit too pungent for their taste! For most, this is a day for final decorations, including decorating the Christmas tree, and last-minute shopping - this evening the streets of downtown Reykjavík are filled with people shopping and socialising.

14. Grýla and the Yule Lads

Icelandic children do not receive a visit from the well-known Santa Claus around Christmas. There is no need to feel sorry for them though because Icelandic children enjoy favours from the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads.
According to Icelandic folklore, these guys are the sons of trolls Grýla and Leppalúði. They live in the mountains but come to town 13 days before Christmas to perform all sorts of mischief, reflected in their names such as Door-slammer and Spoon-licker! Icelandic children leave a shoe on the windowsill for the Yule Lads to fill with goodies each night when they are asleep. They need to be well behaved in order to receive a little something from the Yule Lads. If they are naughty they may wake up to find a potato in their shoe! When all of the Yule Lads have arrived, on Christmas Eve, it is time to start the actual Christmas celebrations. Their mother, Grýla, is a mean and child-eating troll and their pet is the huge and vicious Yule Cat, who lurks around in the snow and eats people who don't receive new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve.

Icelandic 13 Yule Lads - Brian Pilkington
Icelandic 13 Yule Lads - © Brian Pilkington

15. New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve in Iceland has achieved almost legendary status due to the huge public fireworks display around midnight. In Iceland, anyone can freely buy and use fireworks, which are commonly bought from rescue teams to support their important work. Come evening, everybody dresses up in their finest clothes and gathers for a festive dinner. After dinner most people attend a nearby bonfire to warm up, perhaps sing a few songs and meet old friends. After the bonfires, everybody gathers around the TV at home to watch a comedy show making fun of the passing year’s political events. When the clock approaches midnight the sound of fireworks banging becomes louder and louder, culminating in a grand display of fireworks emanating from almost every garden and streetcorner, a spectacular sight! After midnight, parties often continue either at home or move to the bars and clubs downtown.
You can read more about Icelandic Christmas traditions in our guide to Christmas and New Year in Iceland.

Please contact our local travel experts if you are thinking about travelling to Iceland and we will plan your Iceland dram trip!

Hey Iceland Team 2020
The Hey Iceland team is a colourful, fun and dedicated group of people coming from 4 different countries.

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