Here in Iceland, we are notoriously friendly! Welcome! While our culture is open and affable, we also have a plethora of rich and fascinating traditions. Before any trip, you should become accustomed to some aspects of the country you are visiting (its just good practice). Below I will outline some integral and fascinating facets of Iceland’s culture, traditions, and customs.
Parenting in Iceland and How it Relates to Our Culture
Here in Iceland, we are very trusting. It isn’t uncommon to see valuables unattended in public. This applies to belongings, but it also applies to our children! Kids will often walk themselves to school, due to the overwhelming safety that we enjoy here in Iceland. One of the strangest things for visitors to our small island to get over is that it isn’t rare for us to leave our youngest children outside while we go inside and enjoy a glass of Skyr Drykkur (one of our tastier drinks).
Before you get up in arms and grab your pitchforks about our parenting practices, you should know there is a method to the madness. We tend to leave our children outside in strollers and prams to let them enjoy our fresh Icelandic air while they peacefully slumber. They are always in eyesight, and it has been proven to aid their sleep. No one wants a screaming baby inside while they try to enjoy their Bleikja (Arctic Char, full of healthy vitamins), so we leave them outside. Outside can mean parks, stoops, or wherever we park them. Again, this is only possible due to the security that we enjoy in Iceland.
Icelanders are Very Educated
Iceland is lucky to have education that is free all the way up through college. When you don’t have barriers to school, your population tends to thrive. And we are an excellent case study for this. In fact, per capita, we are considered one of the best-educated countries in the world. We also boast one of the highest publishing rates of any country in the world. Due to the high level of education, we have many, many authors. Statistics show that 1 out of 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. We are a well-read and inquisitive group of people.
Icelandic Sense of Humor
We have a dry sense of humor, and it may catch you off guard. Our humor can be off-putting for those unaccustomed to it. However, it is who we are as a people. I think it probably was a coping mechanism to deal with centuries of dreadfully cold and dark winters. As they say in Iceland “Áfram með smjörið.” Which means “on with the butter.” On its surface it means nothing, but it is a way of saying “keep going, keep moving forward.” Only a group of people with a dry sense of humor would offer words of encouragement by channeling the perseverance and strength of butter. If you are still interested you should check out some of our most famous phrases. They are equal parts funny and slightly confusing.
Icelandic Bathing Culture – Pools and Hot Pots
You should pack a bathing suit before you make your way to Iceland. No, you aren’t going to go swimming in a glacier lagoon, in fact, I would highly recommend against it! Hot pots and pools dominate the cultural sphere here in Iceland. These communal swimming areas act as meeting points for all Icelanders, and it is an excellent way for our people to interact with each other and relax (especially during our difficult winter months). Their relaxing properties also create social avenues, so they are essential to us. Grab your trunks, jump in, and relax.
In Iceland, you must wash yourself before you get into a pool or hot pot. By wash, I mean you must wash everything. Not only must you wash thoroughly, but you must also shower naked (this is the standard for most locations, but the rules vary). The reason behind this is to prevent any unwanted bacteria or substances from getting into the water with you. In Iceland, we use minimal chemicals, especially in our hot springs and hot pots. So don’t worry, we don’t want to see you naked! We just want you to be clean!
Traditions in Iceland
In Iceland, we have many traditions that go back almost a millennium. Iceland was originally colonized by Erik the Red in 982. Eventually, we left our Nordic religion and converted to Christianity. But, we still have strong ties to our original Norse gods. Thorramatur, a tradition that celebrates our original culture, is a perfect example of that.
While there are too many to list here, I will try to outline some of my favorites. The popular myths more often than not coincide with the most challenging months of winter and integrate food into the celebrations! So, let’s get those tummies rumbling while I tell you some of our more popular traditions.
Part of Icelandic Carnival – Bolludagur or Cream Puff Day
Bolludagur is my favorite! For me, it is just an excuse to eat as many pastries as humanly possible, and isn’t dessert what life is really about? A cake-filled marathon until we meet our untimely demise?! Bolludagur, or “bun-day,” is celebrated about two months before Easter in Iceland. On Bolludagur we try to eat as many pastries as we possibly can during the day. The cakes are little buns filled with jam and whip cream, topped with chocolate, and made with love. They are tiny and delicious! On this holiday, children get involved and make little wands at school and then return home to smack their parents with their batons (very strange to uninitiated, I know). For each smack, they receive a bun. Parenting has never been more stressful than on this day.
Christmas Traditions in Iceland and The Yule Lads – 13 Naughty Santa Clauses
For those of you in the United States, I envy your version of Santa Claus. He seems like a really amicable man, who genuinely wants you to enjoy your holidays. This is not the case in Iceland! We fear our Santa Clause(s)! Okay, I am joking, but Santa is very different here in Iceland. About two weeks before Christmas, children leave their shoes in their windowsills, and they awake to find treats in gifts in their shoes. We have 13 different Santas called Yule Lads who are all very mischievous, and they leave treats in the children’s shoes. They have amusing names like Stubby, Gully Gawk, Pot Licker, Door Slammer, etc. If you have never heard of this tradition, you should research it. It is very interesting indeed!
Finally, our customs in Iceland may seem very strange for first-time visitors. To get a better idea, I am going to list some of the more common conventions that we have here in Iceland. That way when you get here, you won’t be caught off-guard. By knowing the customs, you will have a better experience on your trip, and you will understand us a little better! And that is the goal of any trip, right?
The Icelandic Custom of Caroling at “Halloween”
Caroling on Halloween is very odd for a lot of people. I am sure just reading it on paper is has given you pause to try to re-read the previous sentence twice. But it is true! We don’t really celebrate Halloween in Iceland, but during Ash Wednesday or Öskudagur, our children will dress up in costumes and visit different shops in Iceland to carol inside of them. The children are rewarded with candies and treats for their singing. We tend to overlook lousy singing. So, if you are in Iceland during Ash Wednesday, and you see a group of Ninja Turtles singing in a store in Reykjavik, don’t be alarmed.
Superstitious Icelanders and Knocking on Wood
Knocking on wood appears to be a pretty standard practice around the world to dissuade fate from ruing your plans. I am always knocking on wood, but that is because I am a superstitious person. Heck, I don’t even walk on the cracks in the sidewalk if I can avoid it. However, knocking on wood is but one level of protection you can offer yourself against tempting fate in Iceland. Here, you can also follow up tapping on wood by saying the numbers “7, 9, and 13”. These three numbers are thought to have special powers. It is similar to buying the extra insurance package on your rental car, except it’s free and there isn’t a mountain of paperwork!
Iceland’s Culture, Traditions, and Customs
Summarizing an entire’s country’s identity in one blog post is nearly impossible to do. The cultural aspects, traditions, and customs laid out above are a small-scale representation of what makes Iceland, well, Iceland. Becoming acquainted with our holidays, like Bolludagur, or knowing that children carol on Halloween here instead of trick-or-treating, will better help you piece together what it means to be an Icelander. I would highly recommend that you investigate further, especially if you are coming here for an extended period. The most important aspect that you need to keep in mind about us is that we are some of the friendliest folks in the world. If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask! We love visitors, and we want you to enjoy our country as much as we do.