A Very Merry Þrettándinn!

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A brenna, or bonfire, which is lit on New Year’s Eve as well as Þrettándinn. My landlady’s daughter says that when she was a kid, children would go around their neighborhoods collecting old furniture, wood, and garbage which they would hoard to throw into the fire on the 6th. It was apparently a pretty typical way to get rid of things you didn’t want anymore, but doesn’t happen quite as much today.

In the US, Christmas is basically a one day thing—two days, maybe, if you have a large family/many families/are extremely enthusiastic. In many other countries, however—Iceland included—the whole ’12 Days of Christmas’ thing is taken seriously. In Iceland, celebrations on the last day of Christmas (January 6th) certainly don’t compare to all the to-dos leading up to the day, but there are still a lot of activities, folk traditions, stories, and more associated with Þrettándinn. I did some research and interviews for an article around Christmas, and it just seems appropriate that I share this all with you today.

So: Here is the opening of Thirteen Things About Þrettándinn:

Often known as the Twelfth Night in the English-speaking Christian world, Þrettándinn (directly translated as “the thirteenth”) marks the end of Iceland’s epic Christmas season. The last of 24 straight days of Christmas merry-making, January 6th is the season’s last gasp—and not just because it’s the last day that you can legally shoot off fireworks in Iceland, or the last day you can purchase Christmas beer. No, according to folk traditions and tales, Þrettándinn is much, much weirder, and gloriously so: it is a time of talking animals, aquatic metamorphoses, naked dancing, supernatural gifts, and precognitive dreams. It is what Helga Einarsdóttir, the Museum Educator at the National Museum of Iceland, calls a liminal time or “a border between two worlds”—namely the holy season around Christmas and the back-to-normal New Year which is just beginning. So here are thirteen things you should know about Þrettándinn:

1. Þrettándinn is “Old Christmas”

Around 1528, the Roman Catholic Church decided to shift from the Julian calendar, which was instituted by the Romans around 46 BC, to the Gregorian calendar, which is still in use today. The Julian calendar attempted to approximate the solar year, but minor inaccuracies in the calendar structure—basically, a few minutes not accounted for in the solar rotation—lead to a gain of roughly three or four days every four centuries. This meant that important Catholic holidays, like Easter, tended to drift over time, which the church didn’t like at all. Thus the shift to the Gregorian calendar, which has fewer leap years, and which, by the time it was finally implemented in Iceland in 1700, had 11 fewer calendar days than the Julian calendar.

In practical terms, what this means is that holidays shifted significantly after the arrival of what 18th century Icelanders referred to as the “new style” calendar. So Christmas went from taking place on January 6th to taking place on December 25th. And so, as late as the end of the 19th century, Þrettándinn was known as “Old Christmas.”

(Follow the link above for the full article.)

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