Updated April 2022
Since Iceland was first settled around 874 by Norseman Ingolfur Arnarson, we have been a nation of proud people set on doing things our way. We celebrate Iceland’s National Day, or the Day of Independence, on June 17th, every year.
Granted, this hasn‘t always been in our best interest. The Icelandic Sagas tell stories of people whose “My way or the Highway” attitude got them and the people around them in trouble. And the echoes of this found in the 2008 financial crisis, led by so-called “Expansion Vikings” suggest that this way of thinking is still alive and well in the Icelandic people. However, this attitude may not always be a positive thing!
Althingi, the world’s oldest parliament, established
In 930, free from the rule of the Norwegian king, the ruling chiefs in Iceland established the Althingi, the world’s oldest parliament. The parliament convened each summer at Thingvellir, in the south part of Iceland. During that time representative chieftains amended laws, settled disputes and appointed juries to judge lawsuits.
Ruled by the King of Norway (again!)
This mode of government continued until the early 13th century when civil unrest and fighting among the chieftains led to the King of Norway gradually exerting more power. By 1264, all the Icelandic chieftains had sworn allegiance to the King. What followed were centuries of Norwegian and later on Danish rule. The natural disaster called “Moduhardindin” caused by the Laki eruptions in 1783 marked the starting of an era of grim living conditions in Iceland . These eruptions killed a quarter of the country’s population and most of its livestock, as well as causing storms and other disruptions all over Europe. It certainly did not look like anyone wanted to celebrate, let only Iceland’s National Holiday!
Emigration to Canada
The following years saw conditions in Iceland become even harsher than usual. It resulted in mass emigration to Canada, where Icelandic influences and legacies can still be found today. We were quickly becoming a nation in dire straits. Some even predicted the population would eventually dwindle to nothing. However, after having survived Viking lords infighting and various natural disasters, Icelanders weren’t about to give up. A new independence movement was born.
The independence movement
The independence movement was led by a lawyer named Jon Sigurdsson, who resurrected the Althingi and eventually, on December 1st in 1918 gained sovereignty for Iceland. You might have seen his statue in the middle of Austurvollur square in Reykjavik, proudly facing the Parliament house. The independence battle continued peacefully until 1944 when Iceland finally gained full independence. The monumental event was celebrated on June 17th, Jon Sigurdsson’s birthday, at Thingvellir where Sveinn Bjornsson was elected as Iceland’s first president. Since then Iceland has had five other presidents. Including Vigdis Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first democratically elected female president.
How is Iceland’s National Day celebrated?
Since 1944, Sigurdsson’s birthday has been celebrated as Iceland’s National Day all over the country. Family friendly entertainment with parades is organized by the cities and towns. In Reykjavik the celebrations start with a flower wreath being placed on Jon Sigurdsson’s grave. Afterwards Fjallkonan, “The Lady of the Mountain” reads out a poem. She is the personification of the Icelandic nation and wears the national dress. After her address, things get a little less formal. Usually there is a parade led by the National Scouting and Guiding Organization of Iceland walking through downtown. Stages are set up for various musical performances and dancing. And the all so popular bouncy castles and other playground favorites entertain the children.
Food, face-paint and balloons
Children and adults alike can get their faces painted and for some reason giant helium balloons have become the official symbol of the day. Look up into the sky on June 17th and you can see them floating up towards the sky. Accompanied by the weary looks of the parents who will now have to buy another one. The lucky survivors will hang around bedroom ceilings for weeks to come until they have completely deflated. Because you do not throw away your June 17th balloon until it is a crumpled piece of foil in the corner.
Another staple of Iceland’s National Day celebrations are candy floss and large hard candy pacifiers. Needless to say this can be a sticky time for Icelanders. If your tastes run to the more savory side the classic thing to get is a hot dog, an “eina með öllu”. The company’s slogan is simply “Icelanders eat our hot dogs” and, well, they’re not wrong.
While official celebrations usually end around 5 or 6 pm there will be plenty of happy Icelanders out and about until late, celebrating. A tasting tour is the perfect opportunity to meet some locals and impress them with your knowledge of Iceland’s independence. And if all else fails, just shout “hæ hó og jibbí jei”! Trust me, I’m an Icelander.