Takk fyrir það gamla!

Hæ, hæ, everyone! Gleðilegt nýt ár og takk fyrir það gamla! (Happy New Year and thanks for the old one!…the old year, that is.)

Last New Year’s Eve, Mark, our friend Graham, and I went for a really nice dinner at Skólabrú, which now seems to be our go-to fancy restaurant around the holidays, and then made our way up to Hallgrímskirkja watch the fireworks from the liftoff zone. We had a very good night with all the other foreigners (Icelanders don’t really go out-out on New Year’s, more anon) and had somewhat similar plans this year—mainly that we were going to watch the fireworks from the church. But our plans ended up diverging quite a bit, to unexpectedly good effect.

We ended up celebrating New Year’s Eve with our landlady, her daughter, and sister-in-law, and had what I believe was a rather traditional—that is to say, family-style—celebration. While in many cities (New York, for instance) New Year’s Eve is a rather crrrrazzy holiday for going out  with friends and drinking a lot, in Iceland, it is a really home-based, family-oriented one. That doesn’t mean that people don’t still drink a lot, for the record—just that they do it with their gramas.

On New Year’s Eve, people here tend to have big, fancy parties with their whole family and perhaps a few close friends (or boyfriends/girlfriends). Walking around our neighborhood we noticed (because people turn on all the lights, light all the candles, and leave the windows open) that most people weren’t just dressed up for the occasion: they were in full formal wear. Men in tuxes—or at least suits—and women in evening gowns and cocktail dresses. (A good rule of thumb for going to Icelandic parties and events: always dress up more. Whatever you are wearing is probably not as dressy as what most other people will be wearing. So don’t be afraid to throw on the pearls, or add the sequins or, at the very least, a tie.)

After a big (lamb) dinner, people might go out to a nearby brenna, or bonfire, maybe sing a bit, maybe just chat with the neighbors and look on fondly as children wave about flares and jump troublingly close (this from an overprotective American perspective) to open flames, and then everyone is back inside and in front of the TV by 10:30, when the annual New Year’s spoof TV show, or Áramótaskaupið, begins.

This ends at 11:30, by which point, everyone gets coated up and heads into the streets to set off all of the professional-grade rockets and fireworks that they have been collecting for the occasion. (Don’t for a second believe, however, that they haven’t been setting these fireworks off for hours, though: as soon as it gets dark [4:30] and often before [we started hearing them around noon, point of fact] people starting lighting these off at random, and usually in large quantities. If you couldn’t see your neighbors calmly clinking their champagne glasses next door in their formal wear, you might think you had entered a war zone.)

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Ourselves? We had the nice lamb dinner, and then walked out to the bonfire which had been lit on the ocean path just behind our house. Then we walked around the neighborhood, watched dads setting off rockets (or, in several cases, just lighting cardboard boxes filled with them before running for cover), and watching knee-high children boldly hold giant red flare sticks out in front of them like it ain’t no thing. We returned to the bonfire (now abandoned, as the Áramótaskaupið had started, but still burning and really nice and peaceful), and then we came back just in time for the last half of the TV show (I understood maybe 30% of the jokes…yay, studying and visual context). We then realized, too late, that we didn’t have time to drink the hot chocolate (not just any old cocoa, but rather pure chocolate bars melted into milk, for the record) and head up to the church for the fireworks before midnight.

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We were disappointed briefly, because that had been so great last year. But this disappointment faded when we went outside and—owing to our great vantage point and the lack of houses blocking the view [because of the domestic airport]—we could not only see the fireworks in town at the church, but also all the fireworks going off in the suburbs, in Kopavogur, on the East side of town…literally all around us. (Mark said it was like watching an alien invasion, which was actually quite apt, I think.)

This is, of course, not to mention all of the fireworks suddenly going off right in our own street. And I tell you, as crazy as Icelandic fireworks are to see in the middle of a city, they are doubly triply so in a quiet, residential neighborhood. This explosional panorama began about 15 minutes before midnight, gained speed, completely freaked out at the stroke of, and then kept going for at least an hour. (They’ll go off at random until the 6th, actually.)

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So at the stroke of 2014, we were standing on our street corner, joined by our hosts and other families who had also piled out of their houses—evening gowns and stilettos and all. It was a sweet picture, them all wishing each other a happy new year while passing champagne bottles from grandmother to granddaughter, lighting cigars, and laughing as their grandsons failed to light off rockets properly. It was that wonderfully Icelandic cosy-chaos, and made for a very good New Year’s Eve.

Pictures obviously don’t do it justice, but perhaps the above give you an idea. (There are also more photos here, some rather blurry, but hey!) You can also check out this Live Cam taken on New Year’s Eve in central Reykjavík. And even better, perhaps, is this video taken by Andrés Sighvatsson with a GoPro camera (maybe attached to a remote control plane?) of fireworks in Hafnafjörður:

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