Weird Icelandic Holidays
They’re weirder than you think! Icelanders celebrate an unusual number of holidays. Sure, there’s the traditional national holidays like Independence Day (June 17) and Labour Day (May 1) and then there’s huge celebratory days like Pride Day (Second Saturday in August) and Women’s Rights Day (June 19). But then there’s the odd old national holiday that needs explaining and even then, you might not really get it. Here goes nothing.
Epiphany - January 6
The final day of the holiday season when the last Yule Lad leaves town (see December 12 for details about the Yule Lads). It’s usually celebrated with bonfires and old songs about elves, moons and magic. If you’re planning on any sort of pagan ritual or forming a witches’ coven this year, January 6 is your day.
Husband’s Day - Friday between January 19-25
Husband’s Day or “Bóndadagur” in Icelandic could also translate to Farmer’s Day since the Icelandic word Bóndi means both. This day marks the start of the old Viking month Þorri with the “husband” traditionally welcoming it by going out wearing only a shirt and just one leg of their trousers. Hardly anyone celebrates this day in the traditional manner given the ridiculousness of it all, but partners will usually gift their male spouses something very masculine on this day, like a pretty bouquet of flowers, a leather apron for BBQing, craft beer and high-end beard oil. The highlight of old Viking month Þorri is the Þorrablót or “worship of pagan gods at Þorri”. Þorrablót is a feast of old traditional Icelandic food, usually quite horrendous looking to the untrained eye and an acquired taste if there ever was one. Think lots of meat in aspic, sour ram’s testicles, singed sheep heads and the notorious fermented shark. This is usually flushed down with lots of alcohol and local festivals include a much-anticipated satirical show about the year’s events in their local town where the local drama club will stage everything that went wrong that year for their neighbors, friends and family. Their merciless and incredibly fun. If you wander into a Þorrablót, we recommend the leg of lamb, the fried bread, the dried fish and as much butter as you can fit on your plate. Bring your sense of humor and don’t even think about taking anything seriously.
Woman’s Day – Sunday between February 18-24
Woman’s Day marks the end of Þorri and the start of old Viking month Góa. No need for shirt shenanigans or disgusting-looking food on this day. This is a day where spouses gift their women something feminine and lovely like a leather BBQ apron, craft beer, a day in the spa and flowers. The month of Góa was traditionally welcomed by the woman of the house the night before with them stepping outside and welcoming Góa indoors, asking her to be gentle. It’s an old way of hoping for a mild spring and was probably associated with women since most of the men would be away fishing around this time of year.
It’s quite telling that these celebrations evolve around welcoming the month and asking for a gentle season. It’s one of many testimonies to the harsh and unpredictable weather in Iceland and a reminder of the hardships Icelanders endured back in the day when Þorri and Góa were the most difficult months of the year as food was usually in short supply at the end of a long winter. Which explains the fermented fish and aspic meat, our modern-day delicatessens.
Bun Day – Monday before Ash Wednesday
Ahhh, to some, the best day of the year. To dieters, the absolute worst. Either way, arguably the highest collective calorie intake by one tiny island nation. Bun Day is for eating insane amounts of cream-puff buns with jelly and topped with chocolate. And they’re everywhere. We’re talking schools, the office, the gym, your house, restaurants, everywhere. Just surrender and skip breakfast.
Fat Tuesday – Tuesdays before Ash Wednesday
Yes, the day after Bun Day, is called Sprengidagur in Icelandic which literally translates to Explosion Day and for most it refers to the feeling of being explosively stuffed after eating a ludicrous amount of salted meat. The “explosive” or “bursting” part is of course a mistranslation, taken quite literally by Icelanders who are not known to turn down an opportunity to feast. Physically bursting at the seams isn’t a great feeling but you should probably just go with the flow because Lent starts tomorrow. The traditional buffet includes rich, salted meat and is always accompanied with beans. Just drink as much water as you can and try to power through.
Ash Wednesday – 1st day of Lent
You might think that finally, here’s a day that doesn’t need explaining. Ash Wednesday is well known the world over as the 1st day of Lent for Catholics and that’s what this is. But in Iceland, it’s something entirely different as well. This day is celebrated primarily by children in Iceland who dress up in costumes and walk around businesses in town asking for candy. They usually have a dance at school first, showing up in their costumes before heading out to the candy hunt. You may think this sounds like Halloween but it’s not. First, they can’t just ask for candy or threaten people with tricks. They need to earn it by singing. The choice of song is theirs, but no candy is given without song. Another tradition, and this might be the “tricky” part, is to hang little colorful bags of ash on the backs of unsuspecting strangers. This requires some degree of preparation and while this tradition is somewhat forgotten in the past two decades or so, some still sow little colorful bags on strings in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. Why? We really can’t tell you, but one theory is that people would bring back ash from the catholic mass and carry it around for good luck, so in a way, you’re just pinning good luck on strangers. Isn’t that nice?
Beer Day – March 1
Prohibition? In Iceland? Yes, it may come as a shock but in 1915, Iceland banned all alcohol. For a fun-loving, beer-drinking, liberal nation in the north, this sounds unreal today, but it was very much real for a very long time. While wines were soon back on the menu, beer was illegal in Iceland until March 1, 1989, thenceforth called Beer Day and celebrated vigorously by beer lovers all over the country.
First Day of Summer – Thursday between April 19 – 25
The first day of summer is celebrated in April in Iceland for some unknown and ridiculous reason since the weather is never anything resembling summer on this day. It is a national holiday, celebrated by forcing marching bands to parade through main streets in what is usually a rather hefty storm. Chance of rain: 99%.
Midsummer Night – June 24
Or Saint John’s Night in Iceland. Another magical day for the witches, warlocks and elves. Much like in other parts of the world, strange and magical things tend to happen on Midsummer Night when the veil between our world and the mystical world is thinner. There are many traditions associated with Midsummer Night in Iceland, such as sitting at a crossroads, waiting for the elves to pass to make your request and speaking with animals that for this one night can answer back. They are rarely celebrated today but one tradition remains somewhat popular: bathing naked in the Midsummer Night’s dew. It’s obviously the best dew and very wholesome so bring your skin condition and a towel and enjoy a magical nature bath if there ever was one.
1st Yule Lad Stekkjastaur – December 12
Iceland has not one but 13 santas, although they’re called Yule Lads and differ somewhat from the American version. They’re descendants of trolls that come down from their mountain dwelling one by one on the days leading up to Christmas. They are highly anticipated by Icelandic children who receive little treats in their shoe if they remembered to put it in their windowsill before they fell asleep and they each have some strange characteristic like wooden legs or a compulsive urge to slam doors. They also have their own preferences for treats in the night like fresh milk, ham or candles. Stekkjastaur is a particularly loved Yule Lad since he’s the first to arrive on December 12. While Icelandic children have a hard time falling asleep on December 11, Icelandic parents are often seen rushing out to a nearby gas station for some stressful last-minute purchase on this day. Nobody knows why.