The modern Icelander is a stylish, tech-savvy and well-informed creature. However, the ties to old traditions and superstitions are strong and there are a number of things that seem normal in Iceland that might look strange to an outsider. So to prepare you for your Iceland trip we’ve collected a list of Icelandic customs and habits.
In spite of being a rather casual society, there are a lot of rigidly upheld traditions in Iceland, especially when it comes to food. The most prominent one of these is the Thorrablot. The old Norse month of Thorri is celebrated throughout Iceland in January – February when families, or even whole counties, get together and eat traditionally prepared food like boiled sheep’s head, pickled ram’s testicles and fermented shark. Luckily preservation methods in Iceland have improved and we no longer need to pickle or ferment our food in order for it to keep, but Thorrablot is a lovely way to see friends and family and pay tribute to the old ways and our ancestors.
February also brings Bolludagur (Bun Day), Sprengidagur (Shrove Tuesday) and Öskudagur (Ash Wednesday). Instead of Ash Wednesday being the start of Lent, in Iceland it marks the end of a three day feast where Icelander’s eat their weight in both sweet and savory goodies. On Bun Day children make traditional Bun Day wands which they then use to spank their parents into giving them creamy, chocolate buns. One bun for each spank makes for a lot of sore adult behinds. Shrove Tuesday (a more literal translation would be Eat-Till–You-Burst-Day) brings copious amounts of salted meat and peas to counteract all the sugar from the day before. Ash Wednesday is kind of like the Icelandic Halloween. Children dress up in costumes and go into shops to sing for candy (our children have a strong work ethic, especially when it comes to candy). It is also tradition to make small pouches and sneakily hang them on people’s backs without them noticing.
September and October are exciting months for farmers and sheep-enthusiasts alike, since that’s when the sheep round-ups take place. Icelandic sheep roam free during the summer, but since they are sheep and not migrant birds they don’t know when the time has come to move to warmer places (i.e. the barn). So someone has to go get them and that’s where the round-ups come in. Farmers, with the assistance of friends and family or casual acquaintances, round up all the sheep in the area into special corrals. Luckily sheep are creatures of habit and every farmer will know their sheep’s favourite area to hang out, so they are usually pretty quick to find most of them. Once all the sheep are safely in the corrals the sorting begins as each farmer seeks out his or her sheep. This is a lively event, with people cheering each other on and usually passing around a flask of some liquid courage. In the evening, once all the sheep are safely in their right place, a ball is held where people can rejoice in a good days work and put that liquid courage to more romantic uses.
Various superstitions are common in Iceland, so much so that behavior related to them has passed into tradition. When moving into a new house bring bread and salt in first so your home will never lack food. But don’t let anyone try and give you a knife. Knives must always be bought, even if it’s just for 1 Krona, otherwise it might harm your relationship with the giver and bring bad luck.
Knocking on wood to avoid tempting fate is common in a lot of countries but in Iceland you need to say the numbers 7-9-13 out loud as well. These numbers are considered to have a special power, and by saying them you are doubly protected from the fickle moods of fate.
If someone offers you a piece of the licorice candy Opal (Icelandic licorice is delicious, this is an undisputed fact) make sure you take two pieces, unless you want to be single for the rest of your life. And when you raise your glass to toast your fellow diners you better look them in the eye or your love life will suffer. With all these romantic perils it’s no wonder there’s only 350.000 of us in the country!
The people of Iceland are very friendly and courteous. It is customary everywhere to thank people for dinner or a favour they’ve done for you, but Icelanders also thank each other for time they spend together, especially if it was for a special occasion. So if you see someone you were with at a wedding or a birthday party recently, make sure to tell them “thanks for last time”. We are also very curious to know what you think of our beautiful country and the phrase “How do you like Iceland” will likely be the first thing that greets you as you step off the plane, although now it has become a bit of a national joke.
But seriously, how do you like Iceland?