So This is Christmas

Björgvín and Eyjólfur performing at a Christmas concert together. (Image via

Exams are over and it’s almost time for us to fly back to the US for what promises to be an absurdly (but not at all unexpectedly) warm Christmas. Like, 70F and sunny, guys. It’s going to be great. In the meantime, here is your weekly moment of Icelandic Christmas zen.

“Svona eru jólin”
Björgvin Halldórsson, Eyjólfur Kristjánsson, and the Öldutún School Choir

To set the scene as you’re listening, I refer to the description posted by YouTuber Strange-o-Rama on the video above:

I remember hearing this song as a little kid, sitting down on the Living room sofa and staring at the tree with all the presents under it and looking into the kitchen, where my dad was hard at work, preparing the Christmas Turkey. I looked out the window and all I saw was black. It was pitch black outside even though It was only about 17:20 in the evening. As I looked out the window…It suddenly began to snow. Little puffs of white slowly drifted down to the ground behind the window. What I felt at that moment, I can only describe as the spirit of Christmas itself. The complete and utter happiness, calmness and all around love I felt was overwhelming. I felt incredible. I hope you will find this feeling this year too. Have a merry christmas everyone.

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Gleðileg Hinsegin Dagur!

Reykjavík Pride‘s signature event—the gleðiganga, or Pride Parade, took place this afternoon (a most perfect sunny day, as you can see). This was our first time in the city for Pride, which is actually a six day event called “Hinsegin Dagar,” or Queer Days (“hinsegin” actually just means “different,” but is the general word used to refer to queer people), and after a little “Diving and Divas” (a concert/diving exhibition at the indoor swimming pool downtown) earlier in the week, I was really looking forward to the parade. (Fun Fact: the Pride Parade is, I’m told, the only parade on the city’s calendar.)

By parade standards, Reykjavík Pride is, admittedly, pretty small. But you wouldn’t know it from the size of the crowds that gather. I’m told that somewhere around 120,000 people came out to see the parade and the following concert this afternoon. Just think about that: 120,000 people. That is just short of the city’s total population which is, at last estimate, 121,230. And that is amazing.

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A Very Merry Þrettándinn!


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.)

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.)

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Bráðum koma blessuð jólin

Hello, Internet!

Free time makes me artsy

Free time makes me artsy.

It has been an age, has it not? (Especially in Internet Time, in which, I believe, 25 minutes = 1 human year.) But rest assured, I have not forgotten you. Rather, I have been finishing finals (I did pretty darn well, thank you), writing, working, finishing my Christmas shopping, making lots of Christmasy-delicious things (candied ginger and orange peels and rhubarb jam thumbprint cookies), paint-by-numbering (see above), reading, ‘starring’ in a video segment about sea swimming (actually was harder for me to be filmed in this video than it was to go in the water), watching English period dramas (Christmas = Pride and Predjudice), meeting fellow Icelandic language enthusiasts/students/bloggers in person (hi, Mark!), saying goodbye to friends leaving the country (bye, Megan!), going to Christmas parties/dinners/buffets, winning gift exchanges (see below) and generally running around in a seasonally frazzled, but cheery, sort of way.

The fantabulous hand-knitted, self-designed mittens by Aino that I received at a Christmas party this week.

The fantabulous hand-knitted, self-designed mittens by Aino that I received in a gift exchange at a Christmas party this week.

With Christmas just around the corner, I’d like to share a song that one of my teachers sang to us on the last day of class, “Bráðum koma blessuð jólin,” or ‘Blessed Christmas Will Arrive Soon.’

The Icelandic lyrics can be (very) roughly translated as follows (not my most elegant work, obvs):

Blessed Christmas will soon arrive
Children begin to look forward [to it]
Everyone will receive something beautiful
At the very least, candles and cards.

Candles and cards, candles and cards.
At the very least, candles and cards.

What it will be no one knows
It’s difficult to predict.
But it is sure to always be
Immensely fun then

 fun then
fun then
Immensely fun then.

So, obviously the rhyme is better in Icelandic and I don’t have much in the way of poetry-translation-skillz, but you get the gist. Obviously, this harkens back to an earlier time, too, what with the reference to ‘candles and cards,’ as classic Christmas gifts.

I did a lot of writing about Christmas for our last issue of the Grapevine, and the candles and cards tradition came up in the process of my research for that, too. So when the articles are online, I will get them posted ASAP, but in the meantime, a very Gleðileg Jól to all of you, and more, soon(er).

Books and Bacon

Chelsea and Darren were lovely guests this weekend and we did a lot of fun, albeit mostly low-key, things. These included sweater-hunting in thrift stores (per Mark and my’s usual, perhaps embarrassing, tradition, we took other people shopping and found something for ourselves—in this case, a delightfully ugly-but-awesome sweater with a mama polar bear and a baby polar bear which had been marked way down because apparently, no one else gets what Awesome is…), wandering around the Kolaportið, getting late night hot dogs, looking at the organ in Hallgrímskirka (I really need to go back and hear it being played finally), cooking a nice fish dinner, and watching movies. There are very few people with whom a first-weekend-back-in-town would go over well, particularly given that Mark and I had to spend a fair amount of time on Sunday doing work. But Chelsea and Darren are the Chill Visit All-Stars and I very much hope that they will come back for a longer visit in the future. We had a great time, you guys!

But on to the B&B… On our “town day” on Saturday, we all stopped by Little Free Library Reykjavík, since I hadn’t actually seen it since I arrived. This was extremely satisfying! Not only was the library still there and in good shape (no graffiti or vandalism to speak of, knock wood, and it appears to still be watertight after the rainy summer…knock wood x2), but it still had books in it. Books which I didn’t recognize and definitely did not put in there or collect myself. Which is really heartening–it looks like people are really using it! At this point, I am unconvinced that anyone has brought the books back after reading them, but baby steps. I am  glad that it is getting off to a strong start.

After visiting the library and adding a few more books to the box we had lunch (a waitress mistook my Icelandic accent for Faroese which was certainly a first and somehow heartening), and then…drum roll…went to the Bacon Festival!

Darren in particular was a very good sport about Bacon Fest, for which I thank him here on the Interweb. Chelsea and Mark chose not to partake, both for very good reasons (too full/legitimately a little grossed out by the grease-drowned bacon/not a bacon-eater), but it would have been, well, super sad for me to be eating free bacon all by myself.

Bacon Fest, for the uninitiated, is basically just an excuse to close down a major street for uber-specific gluttony. There was country band playing Icelandic covers of American honky tonk (“Stand by Your Man” is perfect bacon music, bt-dubs), an abundance of bouncy-castles for kids (like, three or four at least), and about seven stands and tents where bacon and sausage were being given out by the Ali Bacon company. Someone was even handing out flyers for a Bacon After Party, which was hilarious, but might have been pushing it.

I didn’t realize it when we arrived, but it would have technically been possible to start at the church and wend our way down toward the city center, eating bacon every few feet. I can’t say that I regret not doing this, because, you know, I want to live to see my golden years, but somehow, I was pleased with the option—and the fact that having so many stands spread out the crowd a little.

Gleðilegur Þjóðhátíðardagur – Happy National Day!

The Icelandic Flag, flying at Þingvellir - I took this photo on my first trip to Iceland in 2011.

The Icelandic Flag, flying at Þingvellir – I took this photo on our first trip to Iceland in 2011.

Today, June 17, is Iceland’s National Day. Per this article in The Reykjavík Grapevine:

Iceland’s National Day has been celebrated annually on June 17 since 1944, when on that day the Republic of Iceland was formed after Icelanders sneakily severed their ties with Denmark while the latter were busy being occupied by Nazis. It was decided that the Republic should be formally founded on June 17 to honour Iceland’s “independence hero”,  Jón Sigurðsson

There will be day-long celebrations around the country; a full schedule of those taking place in Reykjavík is available here, some of the highlights including:

  • an Antique Car Show, run by the Kruser Car Club
  • Multiple parades, with multiple brass bands
  • a kung fu performance
  • a children’s entertainment program, including a performance by this year’s Eurovision competitor Eyþór Ingi and a Bollywood and Breakdance show
  • “sun watching in Austurvöllur” with the astrological society
  • a strength competition (!!!!)
  • viking games, run by the viking society, Einherji (!!!)
  • a sailing competition
  • an “accordion ball” put on by Reykjavík’s Accordion Club

It all sounds delightful to me.

In conclusion, I give you the (progressively epic–wait for the rolling drums and cymbal clash) Icelandic National Anthem, known as ‘Lofsöngur’ (“Song of Praise”) or ‘Ó Guð vors lands’ (“O, God Of Our Country.”)

Til hamingju með daginn! Birthday 29 in Iceland

I turned 29 on Wednesday (I share a birthday with Saul Bass, I just found out, which is neat) and to commemorate this solemn occasion, Iceland gifted me one of the most lovely days I’ve seen since arriving here in August. It was sunny and mild and clear and even a bit warm at times. It was a perfect day for a walk along the shore, a visit to the “zoo” (explanation of the quotes to follow), a light lunch in a greenhouse, another walk around a botanical garden, a dinner by the harbor, and yet another walk along the shore to cap off the evening. Which is convenient, because that is exactly what we did.

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Happy Cinco de Mayo from Iceland!

On Friday, I finished my very last exam and unless something really strange happened that I was not aware of–like, I forgot all of my Icelandic entirely and started writing in Spanish in my tests–I will have a certificate in Icelandic as a Second Language in very short order. And that definitely feels good.

And what better way to celebrate finishing this year’s Icelandic triumphs than with a good, ol’ traditional Icelandic Cinco de Mayo Partý?

No way, I say!

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Labor Day Celebrations

Photo of Labor Day gathering in Ingólfstorg, May 1, 2013 (via RÚV)

Somehow, we just about missed yet another holiday here in Iceland: May 1, or verkalýðsdagur, which is roughly “working class day,” or International Labor Day. Depending on where you look, it is also called alþjóðlegur baráttudagur verkalýðsins, which means something like “the working class’ international day of struggle.” Whatever you call it, May 1 is a bank holiday in Iceland, celebrated all over the country with parades and demonstrations. According to a book about Icelandic holidays that my landlady lent me, the first May Day celebrations began in Iceland in 1923. The slogan of this year’s celebrations was “Kaupmáttur, atvinna, velferð” or “Purchasing Power, Employment, and Welfare.”

Mark and I had plans to meet our visiting friends in town for lunch, and Mark headed in a little before me, only to be caught on a corner waiting for a 15 minute motorcycle demonstration to make its way—very cautiously and slowly, he says—down Laugarvegur and around the corner. I didn’t happen to catch an motorcycle parades myself, but did catch a bit of a Jónas Sigurðsson (this guy) performance in Ingólfstorg, which was filled with people holding anti-European Union signs (they are frequently very polite: “ESB: Nei, Takk!” or “European Union, No, Thank You!”), gay pride flags, political slogans (there was just an election here, which I didn’t feel well informed enough on to report back to you all about, but it was…surprising) and even a wooden sign that just read “more sun!” with, you guessed it: a large smiling sunshine on it. There were kids in trees, motorcycles parked along the sidewalks, people eating outside at cafes (it is sunny, but still a bit nippy for that, in my opinion) and all very festive.

My camera was out of juice, I figured out too late, but you can take a look at some pictures of the festivities here and here and even watch a minute of the parade—which started at Hlemmur bus station at 1:30 and then made its way to Ingólfstorg with two bands and a lot of regular people just having a good time—here.