So This is Christmas

Björgvín and Eyjólfur performing at a Christmas concert together. (Image via http://www.tatukantomaa.net.)

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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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.)

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.”)

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.

Reminiscences on Easter Holidays: Part 1

One of the kabillion chocolate Easter eggs made in Iceland this year.

One of the kabillion chocolate Páskaegg (Easter eggs) made in Iceland this year.

It’s a bit late to be telling you all this, but Easter is a big holiday in Iceland. As during Christmas, it is a multi-day holiday—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday (which I had no idea was an observed holiday anywhere, actually, but it really is) are all public holidays, in which pretty much all your key services and shops—buses, grocery stores, pools…vinbúðin—operate on a either a vastly reduced schedule, or don’t operate at all. There’s also a week off from school. To maximize your spring (Easter) enjoyment, it’s best to plan ahead in regards to grocery shopping (and alcohol, should you be in need of it), buy one of the baby-sized hollow Nóa Easter Eggs which are filled with candy and enigmatic fortunes (although the smaller eggs are fun, too, as you will surely be able to tell from the picture above), and, if you don’t have family to visit, find yourself a nice place to relax for a few days.

I received two Easter fortunes from candy eggs myself:

Oft hafa fagrar hnetur fúinn kjarna
Beautiful nuts often have rotten cores

and

Ef þú ferð ekki upp á fjallið færðu ekki útsýni yfir dalinn
If you don’t climb the mountain, you won’t get the view of the valley

The university’s Easter vacation (Wednesday to Tuesday) presented Mark and I with the perfect opportunity to embark on a few more outings: one, a nice overnight for just the two of us, the other, a roadtrip to Ísafjörður (a small, but very notable town in the Westfjords) with two of the other Fulbrighters. We’d been wanting to get up to the Westfjords anyway, but what made the timing of this trip rather perfect was that there is an annual free music festival over Easter there, “Aldrei fór ég suður,” (I never went south) on top of which, another Fulbrighter is living and studying in Ísafjörður this year, which meant there were a couple couches/living room floor for us to crash on during our visit.

I’ll be recapping both trips over several posts (just wait for The Best Thing We’ve Done in Iceland So Far – no spoilers!), but you can also check the photo blog, which I will be updating shortly. All the photos from Mark and I’s first night in Laugarvatn have been posted now, however, and you can look at them here.

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Day 1, Part 1: Walking in Þingvellir and Laugarvatn

Mark had a class on Tuesday morning, so we waited until after it finished and were on the road by early afternoon. We were graced with very nice weather—maybe a touch cloudy, but not too chilly and no rain—and we decided to start our journey with a walk around part of Þingvellir National Park which we hadn’t spent much time in thus far. Looking at a map at one of the guest centers, we figured that there are actually a number of trails around the park which follow the various rifts, highlight abandoned farms, run through a little forest, and travel around Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland at 84 km² (about 52 miles²).

View over Þingvallavatn from Vatnskot camp site

We decided that we’d walk around the lake for awhile and started from the apparently popular Vatnskot (Lake Croft) camp site. Vatnskot is also the site of an abandoned farm. According to this interactive map of the park,

Vatnskot [Lake Croft] is believed to have been an outlying estate, leased from the estate of Þingvellir Church. It was probably inhabited over the centuries, but was abandoned as a farm in the 19th century. It remained in use as a “dry-house” (without facilities for any livestock), with rights to fish in the lake. Vatnskot is now a popular campsite.

We didn’t actually find the trail we had been looking for, but still had a nice time picking our way along the coastline of the lake, and then walking back to our car along the road, just for a change of scenery. Here are some photo highlights:

1.

Þingvellavatn has a great deal of fish. Anglers come to Vatnskot in the summer to fish from this lovely pier.

Þingvellavatn has a great deal of fish. Anglers come to Vatnskot in the summer to fish from this lovely pier.

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Looking down into Þingvallavatn from the pier. These rocks looked like deliberately laid floor tiles.

Looking down into Þingvallavatn from the pier. These rocks looked like deliberately laid floor tiles.

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One of my favorite things in Iceland is the ubiquity of  picnic tables in isolated, beautiful spots. Here's one such picnic table.

One of my favorite things in Iceland is the ubiquity of picnic tables in isolated, beautiful spots. Here’s one such picnic table.

Following our walk, we drove to the nearby town of Laugarvatn, a small community on the edge of a large lake (for which it is named) which also boasts Fontana, a geothermal bath and spa (which itself sits on top of some natural hot springs), a satellite location of Háskoli Íslands which specializes in health and fitness studies, and a wonderful restaurant called Linden.

Mark and I ran across Linden completely on accident during our first trip to Iceland–we were driving to the sites along the Golden Circle and encountered a detour on the main road, which ended up taking us through Laugarvatn. We were hungry, so we walked into the restaurant, not knowing at the time that it is one of the best around. It was practically empty, so we got a seat right at the window, looking over the lake, had a delicious lunch of char sandwiches (with char fished from said lake) and truly enjoyed ourselves. It was because of this experience that we had initially wanted to stay in Laugarvatn on our overnight, but as fate would have it, the restaurant is not open on Tuesdays in the off-season. Nevertheless, we found a lovely B&B/arts studio called Galleri there, and since there were also a number of nice hikes/walks in the immediate vicinity, decided to stay the night anyway.

In lieu of Linden, we decided to drive to the restaurant at Geysir for dinner that evening, but had time (and light) beforehand for another short walk along a running trail at the base of the mountain (Laugarvatnsfjall) that we could actually see from our B&B window. This was a nice, easy wooded trail and all the more enjoyable for the exercise signs that had been placed at regular intervals along the path. The exercises, and the accompanying wisdom about keeping one’s body healthy, all came from the same text which was written (if I am remembering right) in the 20s. I didn’t understand all the text, but the images speak for themselves…

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2.

A nice gate (with no attached fence) at one end of the running trail on Laugarvatnsfjall

A nice gate (with no attached fence) at one end of the running trail on Laugarvatnsfjall

3.

This particular stretch looked like an illustration from a super hero comic book, we thought.

This particular stretch looked like an illustration from a super hero comic book, we thought.

I’ll leave the rest of our travels for following posts–I should be studying!

Nammið er búið!

This is somewhat behind schedule, but fun enough to post late, I thought. I just got a chance to put up the few pictures I had lingering from February, two of which were from Öskudagur, or Ash (Wednes)day. As mentioned before, Ash Day is part of Iceland’s three day Carnival proceeding Lent, and is basically their version of Halloween. Kids get the day off from school, dress up in costume, and go around singing to shop keepers in the hope of receiving candy. I didn’t realize, however, quite how involved this is.

Kids in costume on Öskudagur, singing for candy (actually in this case, hot dogs) at the famous “Bæjarins beztu” hot dog stand. According to a kid I heard yelling about it on the street, the stand was giving out not only a free dog, but a free soda, to any kid in costume who sang for them.

Kids in costume on Öskudagur, singing for candy (actually in this case, hot dogs) at the famous “Bæjarins beztu” hot dog stand. According to a kid I heard yelling about it on the street, the stand was giving out not only a free dog, but a free soda, to any kid in costume who sang for them.

According to this delightful video made a few years ago by Iceland Review, kids not only work quite hard on their costumes, they also strategically divide themselves into teams for the day, and work out a whole catalog of songs to sing which correspond to the shops they plan to visit. So, as the video says, if they are going to visit a dairy, they should prepare a song about cows. Bank-robbing tunes are apparently preferred at banks. The better the song fits the location, the more candy can be had.

I don’t remember having to jump through quite so many hoops on Halloween myself…

“All the candy is gone!” (Sign on the door of a hair salon, afternoon of Ash Wednesday, or Öskudagur, which is basically Iceland’s Halloween. Kids go around to shops in costume, sing a song for the proprietors, and are rewarded with candy. That is, until the candy runs out…)

“All the candy is gone!” (Sign on the door of a hair salon, afternoon of Ash Wednesday, or Öskudagur, which is basically Iceland’s Halloween. Kids go around to shops in costume, sing a song for the proprietors, and are rewarded with candy. That is, until the candy runs out…)

Bolla, Bolla, Bolla! Go Have Yourself a Cream Puff (or Seven)

In the grand tradition of delicious Icelandic food holidays (and perhaps also somewhat less delicious Icelandic food holidays), I give you today’s delicious entry to the list: Bolludagur, or bun day.

What is Bun Day, you ask? Per The Reykjavík Grapevine:

Today is Bun Day, or Bolludagur, which is celebrated on the Monday before Lent starts, seven weeks before Easter. On this day, children wake their parents up with loud screams and spanks. The kids shout “Bolla, Bolla, Bolla!” (“Bun, bun, bun!”) and try to spank their parents with paddles that they have made at school. These are made of wands that are wrapped in colourful tissue, and for every successful spank, the kids get to eat one bun.

Now, I know that as a parent, I would probably get tired of having my children whack me one (or two or five) early in the morning and then expect to be rewarded with cream buns. And yet. I just love the joyful, “bolla, bolla, bolla!” refrain. (Try it–it’s fun!) And oh yeah, the buns are tasty, too. I’m not normally a cream-filling sort of gal–Boston Creme doughnuts, for instance, are way down there at the bottom of the doughnut hierarchy with say, bran muffins (not a doughnut! you say–I know! that’s why it is so far down on the list of awesome doughnuts!) But having sampled a very wide variety of Icelandic cream buns yesterday, I am falling down squarely in the “pro” faction.

Mark and I were invited to a bolludagur celebration yesterday, the better to get a head start on the bun-eating. (There was no whacking, though.) We tried about five varieties of cream buns: caramel, Bailey’s (my two favorites), vanilla, strawberry, and your classic chocolate. But to my mind, the best part was actually the little squeeze of raspberry jam that was in the bottom of each bun. Like a magical reward for making it through the clouds of cream. Interestingly, an Icelandic friend later told the Americans who had had their first bun day experience that a) the part he personally hated was the jam and b) that he considered it sacrilege to buy the buns, rather than make them at home. I imagine that homemade cream buns are tasty, but I wouldn’t pass up another bakery-bought one with jam.

Bun Day is the lead-up to another fun pre-Lenten holiday: Sprengidagur, or Bursting Day, when you are supposed to eat massive quantities of salted meat and pea soup. And then…there is Icelandic Halloween, otherwise known as Öskudagur, a.k.a. Ash Wednesday. On this day, children all over Iceland dress up in costumes and go around to local shops asking for candy. But the awesome part is that in order to get the candy, the kids have to sing songs. Apparently, according to the same Icelandic friend, you (an individual) can walk around town with a bag of candy, demanding that adorable children in costumes sing to you for tribute. Perhaps we know what I will be doing on Wednesday?

Anyway, due to my partner in cream bun demolition, I was able to try five varieties of cream buns yesterday, for a grand total of seven buns eaten. I know that you may not have that many varieties where you are, but I hereby challenge you to a bun day duel: how many cream buns can you eat? (For the record, according to that Grapevine article above, just one bakery sold 200 cream buns last year. So figure that Icelanders are much better at eating cream buns than us.)

A few last pictures from 2012

It has been a crazy week, everyone! Lots happening and not enough time, so my blogging has fallen behind a bit. But in the meantime, in the event that you have exhausted all of the adorable kitten videos that the internet has to offer today, I’ve posted some of my last pictures from 2012 over at my photo archive. And here are a few of the best ones, taken on Christmas Eve.

1. Christmas Eve at Hólavallagarður

Christmas Eve, Hólavallagarður

Just before the buses stopped running on Christmas Eve, we headed downtown to be out for a bit before all the festivities started. One of our stops was at the Hólavallagarður cemetery. On Christmas Eve, many Icelandic families make visits to cemeteries to leave bouquets, pine boughs, and candles on the graves of loved ones. Electric crosses are often used, too. This is a photo of the grave of the famous Icelandic painter Johannes Kjarval, which someone had left a candle on for the holiday season.

2. Me, Standing on Tjörnin

3.  Kids running on the pond

I liked the frozen bubbles, but the kids in the background are a perk.

“A True Icelandic Christmas Story”

The true meaning of Christmas, via The Reykjavík Grapevine:

It’s the story of Matthías Máni Erlingsson, a twenty-four-year-old who escaped from Iceland’s maximum-security prison on December 17 and managed to evade authorities for an entire week.

From the moment that he escaped, the media published story after story about him and the public followed obsessively. Needless to say, it’s not every day that the media and public have a fugitive on the loose, let alone one serving five years for the attempted murder of his step-mother with whom he had an affair.

The exciting manhunt finally came to a close early Christmas Eve morning when Matthías knocked on a farmer’s door in rural Ásólfsstaðir and asked to be turned in to the police.

“We started to talk to the boy through the kitchen window and offered him soup and smoked meat. We handed it to him through the window, but he seemed easy to talk to so we took him inside,” the farmer told the media on Christmas Day.

 

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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