Every country has its own New Year’s tradition, but I would like to tell you about our Icelandic New Year’s celebrations. In short, we are very set in our ways in how we celebrate the New Year, and it’s always a family affair but that doesn’t mean we skip out on the fun.
Icelanders welcome the New Year with a blast, literally. Around 700 tons of fireworks are imported and sold in Iceland for this celebration, which means almost 2 kg – more than 4 pounds per person! Maybe the dark days, with average of only 4 hours of daylight, make us drawn to all things bright and shiny? Or maybe it’s the small nation inferiority complex that’s rooted in every Icelander that makes us want to do it bigger and better each year – and of course, make a bigger bang than our neighbor. Whatever the reason – our firework show is breathtaking!
For most of the year, the sale of fireworks is prohibited, but between the 28th of December and 6th of January (the last day of Christmas) Icelanders go wild with it! Luckily, most of the sales are done by the rescue service in Iceland. Fireworks sales are critical for funding those organizations, including the training and equipment needed for search and rescue missions.
New Year’s celebrations
The festivities start at 18:00 / 6 pm when the family sits down for the last meal of the year. Turkey is a popular choice for many, but there are no set “rules”.
After a great meal, it is tradition to go to your neighborhood’s bonfire to enjoy the warmth of the fire, sing songs, and enjoy each other’s company. After the bonfire, at around 22:30 /10:30 pm every Icelander, young and old, sits in front of the television because one of the highlights of the year is about to begin: Aramotaskaupid, an hour-long comedy special that sums up news and happenings of the year that is about to pass. This is an absolute holy moment, no one is allowed to make a sound, apart from laughing of course! As soon as the tv special is finished preparations begin for the main event. The sparkling wine is taken out of the fridge, glasses out of the cupboards. Everyone puts on their coats and gloves. Family and friends gather out in front of the house or out on the balcony. Excited kids and adults that are still young at heart get ready to light the fireworks ablaze whilst the rest of the party cheers from a safe distance. Then at midnight, everything gets, well, how should I put it? Crazy! Those who get a kick out of fireworks are at peak enjoyment, while the rest sit back and enjoy the show … and what a show! Church bells ring in the new year but you can only hear them muffled through the explosions. Make 360° turn and there are fireworks always in clear view– there is literally not on bit of sky that’s not filled with the sparkle and flash of an explosive. About 15 minutes later, the smoky sky turns dark and silent. There are a few stragglers that still have not gotten their fill though and carry on way into the night and into the next day. At around 1 am is when those who plan on partying through the night leave the family affair and go to a house party or downtown bar and celebrate until morning.
You will find many bonfires all over Reykjavik and in towns all over the country. People love to go there to see and be seen, sing songs about elves and dance. This tradition started in Reykjavik in the late 18th century, then spread all over the country and nowadays you will find bonfires in almost every town and neighborhood, no matter how small.
The “Year-meeting-joke” as the name would be literally translated from Icelandic, is a sketch comedy special aired each year on New Year´s Eve. It first aired on the radio in 1948 and moved over to television in 1966. It provides people with comic relief they need to start fresh on a new year. Politicians and public figures are the usual targets and talked-about events and/or scandals provide plenty of fodder for the comedians. The anticipation each year is quite high, and people talk all year long about whether things will end up on the show or not. The show is always highly criticized and people either love it or hate it. The first thing you ask a person when you meet in a new year is, “Hvernig fannst þér skaupið? ” or “how did you like the comic special? ”
New Year’s Eve isn’t all about food, laughter, and fireworks though. A lot of things can happen on this magical night that are not visible to our own eyes, and they happen all around us. This is the night that elves and hidden people use to relocate, seals shed their skin and take on a human form, and one should really pay attention to one’s dreams on this night for they will very likely disclose some important messages.
On New Year’s Eve, a man can foresee his future wife by sitting in a pitch-dark room and looking into the mirror. In order to do so, he needs to recite a certain mantra that only a few know, and we dare not publish here. Nobody can know of this act nor be present during the ceremony otherwise it could end traumatically. First, he will see all kinds of strange and phantasmic images in the mirror and then suddenly a hand will reach out holding a knife or some kind of weapon. The hand will appear three times and try to hand him something, but he should not accept any of these offerings. In the end, the images in the mirror begin to sharpen and finally, for only a few seconds, a picture of his future wife will appear.
Elves and hidden people, who are quite popular figures in Icelandic folklore, are out on the prowl scouting for a new home on this night, crossing liminal time and space. It is customary to have a light lit to help them on their way in the darkness and in the olden days people left out some food on a plate in more remote places for these mythical creatures, should they pass by.
It is said that cows are able to speak on New Year’s Eve and have conversations about virtually everything under the sun. One should be careful though – for people have gone mad by listening in on them.
The dead rise from their grave, go to church and hold a mass and disappear again. Whilst the dead tend church, the souls of people who will pass in the upcoming year visit the graveyard and try out the empty graves for size.
So, it’s easy to see, there is a lot going on in Iceland for New Year’s Eve, but if you want to experience something a little bit less spooky we have some recommendations for you.
Our New Year’s Recommendations
We recommend starting your last day of the year with a good breakfast. Maybe indulge and go to Sandholt bakery for great coffee and pastries. Go for a nice walk around town and breathe in the excitement in the air. Go for a dip in one of our wonderful swimming pools, wash of this year and get ready for the next! (Read more about swimming pools here.) After that we recommend going to buy some fireworks (for example at Grandi area) and support our local search and rescue teams. Go out for a great dinner – but be sure that you have pre-booked a table at a restaurant because, even though most Icelanders eat at home this evening, restaurants do fill up and also not all of them stay open. Here you’ll find a list of restaurants that are open https://visitreykjavik.is/opening-hours.
After dinner we highly recommend that you go to one of the neighborhood bon-fires. We do offer a tour that you can join – see here.
Now you need to get ready for the highlight of the evening! A lot of people gather around Hallgrimskirkja and the atmosphere the is quite exciting and lively. Another way to get the most out of the firework show is to go out on our New Year’s fireworks cruise and see how the whole of Reykjavik lights up!
If you are looking for all this wrapped up in on comfortable package, we’ve got it for you!
“Gleðilegt nýtt ár” – Happy New Year!