Icelanders Make Their Own Fun: Amateur Pyrotechnics Win New Year’s Eve

Farsælt nýtt ár, everyone! I hope that 2013 is off to a splendid start for all of you. Our Christmas guest, our friend Graham, headed back to New York yesterday, so Mark and I are on our own again, having enjoyed some more country exploring and holiday relaxation over the last week or so. I’ll fill you in on all the exciting bits over the next few days, but for now–in defiance of narrative chronology!–I want to jump into the *really* exciting stuff. Namely: fireworks. 500 tons of fireworks (no joke) gleefully exploded by fun-loving amateur anarchists all over Iceland on New Year’s Eve.

(Although I’ve embedded a few below, if that baiting lede makes you want to skip the commentary and go straight to the full array of visuals: photos are here, and–whoa there, I’ve gone techie in 2013–videos of the occasion, which are much more reflective of the full spirit (and sound) of the evening, have been posted on my shiny new Vimeo account, here. I recommend the videos, although I will warn you that even with all the firework noise you can hear me laughing like a hysterical child throughout. Also, I’m new to shooting videos–and to editing them–so there are some dizzying turns of the frame. But I think that adds to the effect, maybe?)

Anyway, let’s get to it:

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The sale of fireworks is basically unrestricted between Christmas and New Year’s–most of them are sold to benefit the Icelandic Search and Rescue volunteer teams–and people buy enormous quantities of sparklers and poppers and actual, professional-grade fireworks to set off on New Year’s Eve.

Following a virtually unplanned fancy prix-fixe New Year’s dinner at Skólabrú, Mark, Graham, and I went up to Hallgrímskirkja, the big church on a hill in the center of town, which is a great vantage point to not only watch the fireworks being set off around the city, but also those being ignited right there in the square. Hundreds of people come out to watch and take part. We headed up at about 11:30 PM, right as Iceland’s annual New Year’s Eve satirical TV broadcast, Áramótaskaupið, was ending. (According to recent figures, upwards of 95% of Icelanders watch this show every New Year’s Eve–we didn’t catch it ourselves because we were fancy-dinner-having, and also because it is, obviously, broadcast in Icelandic, which makes it a bit harder to enjoy for non-speakers. Next year, perhaps I can simul-translate…) The square was just starting to fill with people as we arrived, and I’d guess there were at least a few hundred people gathered by midnight.

As far as I can tell, there is no official state-managed fireworks display. There is no ball drop with Dick Clark. No officially sanctioned celebration. There is just wild and crazy Icelandic chaos, which is no ordinary chaos. Meaning, totally unstructured, but still relatively streamlined. That may not seem like it makes sense, but really it does: In Iceland, in general, people know how to go a little crazy without destroying their surroundings, themselves, or each other. (As someone explained to me, the average Icelander does actually have a lot of experience lighting of fireworks–they have been doing it since they were “this big” [she gestured very low to the ground] and can do it without shooting their own noses off.) You wouldn’t see this kind of controlled chaos in many other places, but here, it seems to work just fine.

Let me describe the scene for you: At first, there are just a smattering of sparklers and smaller fireworks going off here and there in people’s backyards. You can maybe see one or two larger fireworks going off in the suburbs in the distance. About ten minutes to midnight, things start getting really, extraordinarily colorful and loud and “explosional,” to quote one of my Icelandic teachers. As midnight approached, things just got crazier and crazier, with everything going completely batty at the stroke of 12. And then it just kept going.

As the dust begins to settle (not completely–days later, people are still setting off the occasional firework here and there) and the crowd began to disperse, we thought we’d head down to a bar and have a celebratory drink. This proved surprisingly difficult as everywhere–almost literally–had shut down for the fireworks. The whole city pretty much closes mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve, save a few restaurants and bars. What we didn’t realize is that even the stragglers close down in time for the fireworks at midnight and then don’t really re-open, if at all, until between about 12:30 and 2:00 AM. (A friend’s intel let me know that even that stalwart fixture, the hot dog stand bæjarins beztu, where I have seen lines at 3 AM on a Saturday and 9 AM on a Wednesday alike, was closed. This was a serious, serious shut-down.) But within an hour or so of the main festivities, a lot of bars reopen so that people can continue their celebrations into the wee hours of the morning.

I didn’t make it until the wee-est hours, but overall, we acquitted ourselves pretty well. Without a doubt a splendid New Year’s Eve and the best fireworks I’ve ever seen. Ever.

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