Virtually Virtual Iceland
Of Time and Tide
The Days of Iceland
A little information about special days celebrated
in Iceland and the customs observed on those days.
This is just a sample, there are of course many more of these days
and this selection is a personal one.
The Old Icelandic Almanac
An attempt at explaining the Old Icelandic Calendar
which co-existed with the accepted Roman ecclesiastical calendar
The Weekdays - Old and New
A look at the names of the Weekdays in Icelandic,
as they were in ancient times and as they are now,
and an explanation for the change.
The Days of Iceland
Sólarkaffi - Sun Coffee
Celebrated on the first day the sun reached a farm or
community after the dark sunless winter days, this day varies
from place to place, usually sometime in January/February.
Mainly celebrated in the Western and Eastern Fjords,
where the mountains are high and the valleys deep.
Has become a community affair now.
Bóndadagur - Husband's Day
The beginning of Þorri,
often the hardest month of the winter.
Dedicated to men, but traditions and celebrations vary,
and are vague. In some places the man of the house received treats,
in others it was up to him to treat others.
There is even a tradition that the man of the house
should run a lap around the house in his knickers.
The husband's favourite food was also usually served.
Nowadays women have started to
present their men with flowers on Bóndadagur.
Langafasta - Lent
Common to all Christians, but in Iceland folk tales relate
that it was even forbidden to mention meat during Langafasta.
It has been customary in recent years to read
The Passion Psalms of Hallgrímur Pétursson during Langafasta
on The State Radio Station, one each evening up to Easter.
Bolludagur - Bun Day
On this day children, with colourful wands, try to wake up
before their parents and spank the parents in their beds,
saying "Bolla, bolla", (Bun, bun).
The number of spanks being equal to the
cream-buns they will receive during the day.
Not a very old custom. Celebrated on Monday before Langafasta.
Sprengidagur - Shrove Tuesday
Literal translation is Bursting Day.
The last day people could eat meat before Langafasta,
the traditional meal in Iceland is a really filling meal:
saltkjöt og baunir, (Salted Mutton and Split-pea Soup).
This replaced the older hangikjöt (Smoked Mutton) in the 18th century.
Öskudagur - Ash Wednesday
Known in Icelandic records from the 14th century,
the observance of this day is probably an even older one.
The special Icelandic tradition of hanging öskupokar (Ash bags)
on people is known from the 17th century.
Girls attempted to hang a bag with ashes on men's clothing,
and boys tried to hang bags with stones on women's clothing.
Öskudagur is also a weather prediction day,
it is supposed to have 18 brothers, all the same.
Konudagur - Housewife's Day
First day of Góa, or Gói.The name is from the 19th century and
the husband is supposed to bring his wife the morning cup of coffee in bed.
Flowers have replaced this of late.
Páskar - Easter
If you are looking for the wishing stone,
the morning of Easter Day is considered an auspicious day to do so.
Trolls and other evil beings sleep through Easter Day,
so no danger from them will be encountered.
Sumardagurinn fyrsti - First Day of Summer
This is a special Icelandic festival, a legal holiday.
Falling on a Thursday between April 19th-25th, the first day of Harpa,
this holiday is referred to in early Icelandic records.
Sumargjafir (Summer Gifts) are a custom dating back to the 16 century.
Now mainly dedicated to children, with marches and other entertainment.
If winter and summer "freeze together",
it is a good omen for the summer's weather.
Lokadagur - Final Day - May 11th
Last day of the fishing season in the south-west of Iceland.
Traditionally celebrated by seamen with food and drink.
Much of the festivities have been moved to
National Seamen's Day, observed on the first Sunday in June.
Hvítasunnudagur - Whitsunday
Icelandic folk belief states that sleeping on
Whitsunday is detrimental to your health.
All kinds of monsters are asleep though, like on Easter Day,
and can be taken by surprise.
Folk belief also has that the Rock ptarmigan is safe
from the clutches of the Icelandic falcon on Whitsunday.
Fardagar - Moving Days
The period of workers moving from one farm to another,
these days: Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
in the seventh week of summer,
were also used for settlements of debts.
Used as the start of the fiscal year up to this century.
Can start from May 31st to June 6th.
Jónsmessa - St. John Baptist's Day - June
This day has inherited many of the customs and folklore
associated with Midsummers Day, three days before.
Regarded as one of the most magical nights of the year,
cows gain the ability of speech, seals transform into humans,
very propitious for looking for herbs, grasses,
and of course the Magical Stones.
These stones usually were supposed to lie at the
bottom of a particularly inaccessible lake
and you had to reach the site at midnight when
the stones would float to the surface.
The dew falling on this night has special healing powers,
but only if you roll in the dew - stark naked.
Hundadagar - Dog Days - July 13th-August 23rd
The name is supposed to derive from the Greeks,
who associated this period with the Dog Star, Sirius.
Popular Icelandic explanations of the name include
the belief that dogs ate grass at this time and became lazy.
Also associated with the name are the Dog Fish (Dolphins),
which are supposed to grow so fat at this time,
that they lose their eyesight and swim ashore.
Nowadays this period is mainly famous for
being roughly the period that the Danish Jörgen Jörgensen,
Jörundur hundadagakonungur (Jörundur The Dog Day King)
ruled in Iceland in the year 1809.
Töðugjöld - Harvest Home
Slægjur (Meadow Bonus) is a very old tradition,where the farm workers
received a bonus when the hay had been safely gathered.
Usually observed in September.
In the 1800's Töðugjöld (Hay Bonus) was also observed
as the home fields became more important.
Usually observed in August.
Observance of these customs has become rare
because of changes in the farming procedures.
Höfuðdagur - Head Day - August 29th
Named after the beheading of St. John the Baptist,
this day is supposed to be a weather omen, the next three weeks,
at least should have the same weather.
Réttir - Round-up
Icelandic farmers let their sheep roam free
in the highlands during the summer.
They are rounded up before winter, usually in September,
driven into a common enclosure, from which
each farmer separates his sheep into his own enclosure.
These round-up gatherings, in past centuries,
were often the only regular annual social event.
Nowadays many city dwellers consider it a must to attend réttir,
and tourists are coming from abroad to
participate in the round-up and the gathering.
Þorláksmessa - St. Thorlakur's Day
Iceland's main native saint is St. Þorlákur
Þórhallsson, Bishop of Skálholt,
who has two days dedicated to him.
This one, commemorates his death in 1193.
The other one, July 20th, celebrates the exhumation of his bones.
The main custom associated with this day is the partaking of a simple meal,
usually skata (skate) which is becoming traditional all over the country,
having originated in the Western Fjords.
Jól - Yule/Christmas
Celebrations at the time of the Winter Solstice predate Christianity.
Yule was celebrated in pagan times, but it is not
clear how this was done, sources speak of "drinking" Yule.
This pagan festival was absorbed by
the Christian church, like so many others, but in Iceland,
and the Nordic countries, the old traditional name still survives.
Christmas celebrations start in Iceland at 6 p.m. on
Christmas Eve, December 24th.
This may derive from the fact that in the past days
were often counted, not from midnight, but from 6 p.m.
Thus in Iceland the Twelve Days of Christmas are thirteen.
Christmas abounds in folklore, the jólasveinar (Yuletide Lads)
and their parents, Grýla and Leppalúði, being the most popular.
The names of the jólasveinar number over 70,
but usually they are considered to be either nine or thirteen.
Traditional Christmas fare is hangikjöt (Smoked Mutton), but in the
a sheep was often slaughtered before Christmas
and a kjötsúpa (Meat Soup) served.
Another traditional Christmas delicacy,
the rjúpa (Rock ptarmigan), started out as the poor man's dinner.
Grautur (Porridge) was a delicacy in Iceland in the past,
as the scarcity of grain prohibited this being an usual dish.
Another Christmas speciality is laufabrauð (Leaf Bread),
very thin sheets of dough cut into intricate patterns and fried.
Christmas presents were rare until late in the 19th century,
summer presents being much more usual.
Everyone, however, received some sort
of clothing either before or on Christmas.
This was a sort of bonus, and folklore states
that those who did not receive a new garment
will be taken by the Jólaköttur (Christmas Cat).
New Year's Eve/New Year's Day
One of the most magical nights of the year
is the night when the old year changes into the new.
Cows gain human speech, seals take human shape,
the dead rise from their graves and the Elves move house.
A traditional greeting to the Elves was:
Let those who want to, arrive
Let those who want to, leave
Let those who want to, stay
Without harm to me or mine.
The housewife was supposed to chant this on New Year's Eve.
Elven gold could be obtained from the Elves by sitting at a crossroads
waiting for Elves to pass by.
Bonfires on New Year's Night have been lit in Iceland
since late 18th century, and in this century the custom of
"sprengja út árið", "blowing out the year",
has been observed by exploding fireworks.
Twelfth Night - January 6th
The last day of Christmas,
celebrated in latter years with bonfires and Eleven dances.
Many of the magical occurrences associated
with New Year's Eve are also supposed to occur on Þrettándinn.
The Old Icelandic Almanac
Iceland is unique in Europe in having used an independent Almanac,
which co-existed with the ecclesiastical calendar for centuries.
This Icelandic calendar, developed from seasonal factors,
divided the year into two equal halves,
Winter and Summer.
A man's age was described not in years but in "winters",
and this practise is still applied to horses and other livestock.
There are two possible explanations for this,
the New Year was considered to begin with summer,
or that when you had survived the winter,
the summer was "a piece of cake".
The main division of each half of the year was the week.
Events are regularly referred to as having happened
in this or that week of the summer or winter.
A birthday would be registered in the church register
by month and day, but referred to popularly
as having occurred on a certain day of
a certain week of summer or winter.
Coexisting with this calendar was a lunar calendar of months,
which was hard to use, as in summer the bright nights
made the moon hard to observe, and the overcast days
of autumn and winter made observation of the moon impossible.
These months all had their own names,
which are indicative of the lives of the
subsistence farmers in Iceland in the past centuries.
The most common names are below,
with a comment or two to explain the names,
and the date each month begins in this year 1996.
Þorri - Thorri
January 26th 1996 - Middle of Winter
Þorri is winter personified in medieval folklore
and Þorrablót (Þorri Feasts) are mentioned.
Þorri personifies Old Man Winter in the poetry of latter centuries.
The housewife was supposed to greet Þorri,
presumably to soften his heart, and thus the weather.
Derivation of the name is uncertain.
Góa - Góa
February 25th 1996
Góa or Gói is personified as the daughter or wife of Þorri,
and it is known that in the Northeastern part of Iceland
Góa was presented with a red wool lock, presumably
to try to influence the weather.
An old Icelandic saying: "To survive Þorri and Góa",
means that you have passed the hump.
Einmánuður - Lone Month
March 26th 1996
Derivation of the name is uncertain, but
this month was dedicated to young men, and the
first day of Einmánuður was called
Yngismannadagur (Young Men's Day).>
Harpa - Harp
April 25th 1996
The name is thought to have been derived from
a word meaning particularly harsh winter.
In latter centuries the association has changed to
that of a young girl welcomed by young men on the first day of summer.
As Þorri and Góa were dedicated to men and women,
Einmánuður and Harpa were dedicated to the young of the sexes.
May 25th 1996
Sólmánuður - Sun Month
June 24th 1996
Starting around the Summer Solstice the name is self-explanatory,
the midnight sun dominating this time of the year.
Heyannir - Harvest Month
July 28th 1996
Literal translation is Hay Working, and the
name refers to the importance of laying in enough hay
for the livestock for the coming winter.
Tvímánuður - Double Month
August 27th 1996
The origin is uncertain, at least to my knowledge,
but might be connected to the fact that a double amount
of work had to be carried out to prepare for the winter.
Haustmánuður - Autumn Month
September 26th 1996
The name refers to the fact that the winter
is around the corner and the farmers are rounding up
their sheep and other livestock before winter,
all summer chores had better be finished before the winter sets in.
Gormánuður - Innards Month
October 26th 1996
The first month of winter in the Old Icelandic Calendar.
The name refers to the fact that the slaughter of the excess
livestock before the winter set in. The month's menu consisted
of those innards that were not pickled or salted:
hearts, liver, kidneys, etc.
Ýlir - Whiner
November 25th 1996
The name refers to the Northern winds, which
start in force in this month, and the
whistling, or whining, noise the wind made
passing through the doorways and windows.
This word has also been considered as related
to jól, and that the name really refers to
the month of Yule.
Mörsugur - Fat Sucker
December 25th 1996
This name indicates that after the holidays
the daily fare was scant and that the body fat
was being used up.
The Weekdays - Old and New
The names of the Weekdays in Iceland bear little relation
to those used in the neighbouring languages.
The names of the weekdays were very similar in the German/Nordic area
when Iceland was settled, but then the church tried to
enforce changes, because the old names
were based on those of the gods of the pagan religion.
This did not work in most other countries, but to a certain
extent in Iceland.
Below is a table with the Old Icelandic Weekdays,
English Weekdays, German Weekdays, the suggestions
of the Icelandic Church and Modern Icelandic Weekdays.
It can be seen that the names of the days in the middle
of the week have been changed in Iceland, so nowadays
they are mainly just numbers:
Tuesday = Third Day (Þriðjudagur)
Wednesday = Middle-of-the-week-day (Miðvikudagur)
Thursday = Fifth Day (Fimmtudagur)
Friday = Fast Day (Föstudagur)
The German Mittwoch corresponds to the modern Icelandic.
It is ironic that the church managed to change the names
of the days in the middle of the week, but not the names
of the days over the weekend.
On Föstudagur people were supposed to eat no meat,
and this was observed for a period, but
I remember in my grandmother's house this
was the only day of the week when meat was served.
Based on many sources, but the main source has
Árni Björnsson's excellent book
Saga daganna - High Days and Holidays in Iceland.