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Burning down the year

A big part of New Year’s in Iceland is the bonfire tradition, in which huge fires are lit throughout the country on New Year’s Eve. These inevitably draw a big crowd and for many it’s an indispensable part of the evening – going out to the bonfire after a big festive dinner and meeting up with your friends and neighbours.

One of the largest ones in Reykjavík is near our place and today I walked past and saw that they have a fairly substantial pile of wood set up there for tomorrow. With any luck we’ll make it down there … the fire is lit at 8.30 pm and extinguished a little past 10, I believe – just prior to the Áramótaskaup, an annual send-up of the year’s events that has Nicelanders glued to their TV screens – and causes the streets to be empty – from 10.30 to 11.30 pm. [A more detailed description of Nicelandic New Year’s traditions may be found in last year’s instalment, here.]

But back to bonfires. Only today did I discover that lighting big fires on New Year’s Eve is a tradition unique to Iceland. The first report of such a fire dates back to 1791 when a bunch of guys studying at Hólavallaskóli gathered barrels and timber and set them on fire, on what today is Landakotstún [where the Catholic church is] – which happens to be the place where we go to shoot up our fireworks at midnight [along with virtually all of the West End … it happens to be the highest place in the vicinity so you have an excellent view of the splendiferous pyrotechnics in the sky.]

Some 50 years later, New Year’s bonfires had become common in Reykjavík, and by that time people had started dancing ‘Elf dances’ around them [guffaw!]. This is believed to hail from a play performed by yet another school [Lærði skólinn], in which they dressed up like elves, marched down to the Tjörnin pond with torches and danced and sang “elf songs”.

In addition to this, there are lots of myths connected with New Year’s Eve in Niceland. Supposedly cows start talking, but you shouldn’t try to eavesdrop because you will almost certainly go mad. Also, the elves move house on New Year’s Eve and you are advised to lie down at a crossroads on New Year’s night, from which four churches are visible. Elves will then appear from all directions, ask you to follow them and offer you gold and treasures, clothes, food and drink if you do. However, you must not accept because immediately you’ll become spellbound and subsequently go mad. However, if you stoically manage to get through until morning without responding, superstition has it that the elves will disappear but their wealth and treasures will remain and be yours.

So in other words, if you’re in need of some quick cash, just find a Nicelandic crossroads, make sure you can see four churches, and lie down. Problem solved. Just don’t mention my name to the elves.

Who cares what the weather is today – all eyes are on tomorrow. If there was ever a day in which the weather is of prime importance it’s New Year’s Eve. Two years ago, for instance, there was a storm and they had to cancel the bonfires and it just wasn’t the same. Sigh. Neither do you want too much snowfall, or rain, or fog. Clear skies are an absolute must. And too much wind – scary. Nobody wants a firecracker to blow up their dress/coat/trouser leg/nostril. Sooooo… I’m happy to report that the forecast for tomorrow is excellent. Moderate winds and scattered clouds, with temps of around 2°C. Today the sun came up at 11.21 and set at 15.40. And the day feels much longer already. Really. Both EPI and I noticed.



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