Every year on the first Thursday after April 18th, Iceland officially celebrates the First Day of Summer. And you know what, summer is here!
For anyone that’s been in Iceland in late April this might seem like a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of summer. However, there is method to the madness. The date corresponds to the Old Norse calendar used by Iceland’s settlers. That calendar only had two seasons: summer and winter. The long, dark winters could be rough on the new population of this strange island, and the brighter days of summer were eagerly anticipated (it’s no coincidence that your age was measured by how many winters you’d survived).
The modern Icelander might not struggle through the winter months in the same way, but the joy that comes with longer days and the sight of the sun, is still a huge factor in the Icelandic psyche. And so we stubbornly insist on celebrating the First Day of Summer in April, despite the fact that some years we may have to put on our snowsuit to do it!
So what exactly does this celebration entail? Well, since it’s a public holiday everyone gets the day off. This has always been the custom and back in yea olden days no farm work, besides the absolutely necessary, was performed, and children were allowed to go between farms and play with other children. The day was also dedicated to young girls, and young men would take the opportunity and hint about their affections to whichever girl they liked best (Icelanders have never really gotten the hang of the whole dating thing). Until the mid-1700s Icelanders would have mass and read from the Bible on the First Day of Summer, until the Danish church discovered the practice and banned it, since it is not an official church holiday.
Since the 1900s the day has been catered mostly to children. Most towns, or city neighbourhoods, will have parades led by The Icelandic Boy and Girl Scout Association complete with marching bands and flags. Various family games and activities will be available, as well as sporting events and other organised entertainment. Some families still give Summer Gifts, a tradition that precedes Christmas gift-giving in Iceland. Usually the gifts have something to do with outdoor games; like a ball, a skipping rope or a bike.
Icelanders can be a superstitious bunch and of course there is various folklore and traditions connected to the First Day of Summer. When the temperature on the night before the First Day of Summer is below zero it is said that winter and summer have frozen together and it is taken to be a good sign, since it’s believed to mean that the summer crops will be good and the farm animals will be in good health. Hearing the drumming sound of the Common Snipe is a very good sign on the First Day of Summer, since that means that there will be no more snowstorms until next winter. However, if you spot a sparrow close to your house that means that it will get cold again.
But nevermind what the birds or the thermostat say, it is officially summer in Iceland! With its vivid colours and midnight sun, the Icelandic summer offers an endless array of activities and sightseeing for visitors and locals alike. Happy summer!