Icelandic Language Blog

Happy First of Summer! Posted by on Apr 23, 2015 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

Hveragerði, very, very early in the morning. The summer half is light all day and night long!

Summer is finally here! I mean it did snow a few times today and the night before was freezing, but that’s just good luck according to old beliefs, it’s said that if winter and summer freeze together the summer will be good. Sumardagurinn fyrsti, The First of Summer, divides the year into its warmer half just like the first winter day in the autumn dips Iceland into cold season.

In the old Norse calendar there were only two seasons, and it might make a lot of sense if you think that one half was for growing and gathering food for the other. Of these the first day of summer was greeted with celebration because it heralded the gentle weathers and an end to the gloomy one, and people could count one more year to their lives. At this time your age was defined by how many winters you had survived and no wonder, in Iceland in particular life was tough in the winter.

The weather could kill you and if it didn’t you still wouldn’t have it easy. The houses may have been warm but the air inside was horrible because it didn’t change (there was a ventilation system of sorts, but it was basically just a hole through the wall and had to be plugged for the majority of the time so that the house stayed warm), people went around with shoes made of skin that wet through quickly, food was scarce and not necessarily that appetizing and one stomach virus could be all that was needed to send someone to an early grave. The darkness took its toll as well in a time when no outdoor lights were available and sun barely came up for months. It’s maybe no surprise that Icelanders really looked forward to the warm season.

To this day you can occasionally find old postcards with strange summer-greetings on them. They may even have a Christmas-themed picture on them but the text behind joyfully wishes the recipient a happy summer instead. In old days Sumardagurinn fyrsti was indeed a celebration on the same level as Christmas is now, if not even more important, and Icelanders did not care that much whether the religious images fit the festival. To make another interesting comparison the First of Summer used to be the time when people gave each other gifts, much like Christmas is now!

Somewhere by Road 1 on the south side of Iceland.

When is it?

All traditional Icelandic holidays from the old calendar change place each year, so Sumardagurinn fyrsti cannot be exactly pinpointed to one particular day. It’s the first day of the first summer month Harpa and takes place between 19th and 25th April, the first Thursday after April 18th. It’s a national holiday which means that very few shops and services will be open, so keep this in mind if you’re traveling in Iceland at the end of April! For the following three years the dates will be:

2016: 21st April

2017: 20th April

2018: 19th April

What happens on this day?

First and foremost – barbecuing. Icelanders love grilled food and some would cook like this all year round, but this day in particular is celebrated by digging out the grill and throwing in some lamb. You can literally smell The First of Summer by taking a walk outside!

Other activities vary greatly but it’s not unusual to do something outdoors (as long as the weather allows). My FB feed suggests people liked to take long walks, go bicycling, attend the Ásatrú celebrations (link), take lots of photos (of course), and I think one person mentioned plans for going for a dip in the sea, which must have been absolutely freezing. There was also a fight downtown that was advertised in advance and you could book a place in it, but don’t worry, the whole battle was arranged by a local clothing company that sells outdoor wear and the weapon was… water (link). Whichever team could empty their storage of water on the other team first won! When asked about their reasons behind the idea the answer was simply:

“Okkur langaði eftir svona langan vetur að fagna sumrinu.”

(= After such a long winter we wanted to embrace summer.)

Who could fault them for thinking this way, after all the winter was one of the exceptionally harsh ones, so bad that it’ll most likely get a name. Icelanders only do this is the winter was near or downright catastrophic so that should give some idea of how it was like… personally I say good riddance to the coldness! Happy summer to all of you, dear blog readers!

One of the things I’m really looking forward to – the camping season! Photo taken at Hamrar camping site in Akureyri.

 Gleðilegt sumar!

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!