Believe it or not settlements in Iceland date back to 874. Historical evidence also shows Gaelic monks may have settles long before that date. So to say the country has a long history of old Icelandic traditions would be an understatement! Today I would love to share with you some of the oldest and most interesting…
Rímur (old Icelandic rhymes)
This is my favorite of all of the Icelandic traditions and surely one of the oldest. Rímur (also referred to as rímnahættir) are unforgettable (some say EPIC) poems which rhyme. Back in the day folks that wrote these rhymes would be looked at like lyrical masters! Further, most of these old rhymes were created between 1400-2000. Truly it’s inspiring to listen to the artistry and genius that is involved in crafting these masterpieces!
Living in Turf Houses
It may come as a surprise to you but for centuries Icelanders lived in old turf houses (aka grass covered). Up until the early-20th century life was way harder than it is now. Although the roofs were grass covered, the floors were of dirt and more often than not, many folks shared the home and people slept in bunkbeds.
Interested in seeing one and understanding what it was like? To illustrate, you can head to the Skogar Museum or Keldur to experience the out and inside for yourself!
Icelandic Traditions for Christmas
Christmas is one of the most important and most celebrated holidays in Iceland. Firstly, Christmas lights begin to be put up in November and stay up until February to brighten up the dark days. Secondly, family and friends gather one of the weekends in December to partake in a tradition called Laufabrauð (leaf bread). Which basically entails cutting designs into bread that is then fried and then eaten for the next month.
Thirdly, another huge piece of the Icelandic traditions for Christmas is the 13 Yule Lads, Grýla (their troll mother), and the Christmas Cat. The lads are trouble makers with quirky names and each one has their own day they “come down from the mountain” to spin their tricks on children.
If the children have been good they are left a small present in their shoes and if not, they are left a rotten potato. And if the child does not receive a clothing item before Christmas Day, the black cat will snatch them up and bring them up the mountain for Grýla to eat! For real, can you believe that Hollywood hasn’t made a movie of this tradition yet?
Lastly, many still decorate the Christmas tree on the 23rd of December too, but I enjoy doing it much sooner. Dinner with your family and presents happen the night of December 24th, Christmas Eve. Additionally, Christmas Day is spent relaxing, reading, playing games with whomever you choose.
Skata (rotten skate)
In short, this is my least favorite of the Icelandic traditions. However, it is another one of the oldest that is still currently embraced yearly. On December 23rd, the streets fill with the smell of a fermented fish called, Skate. Be aware if you partake, do not wear clothes you care about because the stink will forever penetrate it. Dare you to partake!
New Years Eve in Iceland
Fireworks are limited to be used only between Christmas and New Years Eve. Needless to say New Years Eve is HUGE! Usually there are no “planned” fireworks within the city or countryside towns because all of the locals just buy and set off their own shows. Truly, it’s marvelous and an incredible show no matter where you are staying that night!
Iceland Travel Tip: Heading down to Hallgrimskirkja in downtown Reykjavik is a really stunning place to watch or any spot with elevation too.
Þrettándinn (Thirteenth Night)
Þrettándinn is the thirteenth night, which is January 6th is a crazy fun night in Iceland! For instance, it’s the day when each town “burns off” Christmas. Marking the end of the holiday it’s celebrated by festive dinners, bonfires, dancing, people dressing up as elves, trolls, and of course fireworks!!
One of the more interesting old Icelandic traditions is named Þorrablót (translation: sacrifice). It’s a mid-winter festive weekend where Icelanders dine in all of the old traditional foods, recite poems, and gossip. You could expect to dine on the following items:
- Súrsaðir Hrútspungar (Sour Rams Testicle)
- Kæstur Hákarl (Rotten Shark)
- Lifrarpylsa (Liver Sausage)
- Blóðmör (Blood Pudding / slaughter blood)
- Svið (Boiled sheep’s head)
- Sviðasulta (Head Cheese)
- Harðfiskur (Dried Fish)
- Hangikjöt (Boiled or Smoked Lamb Meat)
- Rúgbrauð (Rye Bread)
- Lundabaggi (Sheep’s Loins)
- Súr Hvalur (Pickled Whale Blubber)
- Selshreifar (Seal Flippers)
- Rófustappa (Mashed Turnips)
Icelanders take choosing a name very seriously. First, did you know that each person has the name of their father as part of their last name. For example, if a person has a father named Jónas then his son will have Jónasson (Jónas’ son) as the last name. Next, if a female the daughter will be Jónasdóttir (Jonas’ daughter).
Overall, when someone has a child they have 6 months to name the child. So many times when the mother leaves the hospital the child may not have a name until the actual “naming ceremony” at the church or family gather. Why?
This dates back to very early days of Icelandic traditions being that a child may not survive and they did not want to name it to soon in fear of getting attached. Furthermore, if the mother / parents do not choose a name within the “National Register of Persons” then they must submit the name for special approval.
Bjordagur – Beer Day
March 1st each year is a celebrated day which honors the elimination of the 74 year prohibition of beer (1915-1989). How is this tradition in Iceland now celebrated? Typically the local breweries launch their newest collections too for folks to try too!
Bolludagur – Bun Day
Just as in North America and many other parts of the world, the day before Lent begins is called “Fat Tuesday.” Whereas in Iceland it is called Bolludagur (aka, Bun Day). Same concept, just different donut type! Think: Sweet bun with cream inside. This specific Icelandic tradition dates back to the early 1900’s.
Traditions run deep in the Icelandic countryside. When summer transitions to fall, it’s time to herd the sheep back down from the mountains. They spend the summer up there grazing in the highlands.
However, during the month of September (usually the 2nd weekend) family and friends gather for “Réttir,” to bring the sheep and lambs back down to the farms. Typically this is done via hiking, horseback, ATV, super jeeps, and by sheep dogs. Once the sheep make it back down to the farm area they are put into a sorting ring (see the photo below) so that each farm gets the right tagged sheep back.
Sumardagurinn Fyrsti (the first day of summer)
Somewhere between April 19-25th falls Iceland’s first day of summer which is named Sumardagurinn Fyrsti. It’s a big deal because it is long awaited from the winter days. Although Iceland now experiences more of 4 seasons, back in the day when these old Icelandic traditions began, there were only 2 seasons being winter and summer. Mainly the day is celebrated because of the amount of daylight that comes each day bringing us closer to 24 hours of daylight and the sun never setting.
Verslunarmannahelgi (Merchant’s Weekend)
Outside of mainstream holidays, the other big weekend around the entire country is Verslunarmannahelgi (also called “shop keepers weekend”). As a matter of fact, it is also paired with the island’s largest music festival weekend too in the Westman Islands. The weekend falls the first weekend of August each year, and can be a very crazy time to visit Iceland. Why? All Icelanders are out and about traveling too so usually campgrounds are packed along with hotels. So make your reservations early if you intend on visiting during that time of the year!
Konudagur – Wife’s Day // Bóndadagur – Husband’s Day
Two traditions that began in the 1800’s is Konudagur (Wife’s Day) and Bóndadagur (Husband’s Day). How fun is it to have a special day to celebrate your significant other?! Within the old Icelandic traditions, it basically meant honoring the master of the farm and the master of the household. Note: This is in addition to the holidays honoring fathers and mothers.
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