Gleðileg Jól! History & Holiday Traditions of Iceland - Part I

What do active volcanoes, coveted cod, mischievous trolls, a giant cat, and fried dough all have in common? It can only be Jól á Íslandi - Christmas in Iceland! In this two-part post, we’ll explore the beauty, history, resourcefulness, and resiliency of that little island nation at the edge of the Arctic, along with traditional Christmas foods and folklore. First up, let’s look at the dichotomy that comprises Iceland’s geology.

Move over, George R.R. Martin - Iceland is the REAL World of Fire & Ice. Located just below the frigid Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth. The beautiful island nation in the northern Atlantic Ocean sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is the boundary of two major tectonic plates - the North American and Eurasian. These plates are slowly moving away from one another and across a hotspot (the Iceland plume), erupting in the process and creating new ground. Iceland is unique in that this divide is visible on land - you can actually see where the plates meet!

The result is a landmass under constant construction, creating volcanos, geysers, and hot springs spread throughout the entire nation. In fact, the word “geyser” actually comes from the Icelandic landmark Geysir, first discovered in 1294, in the southwest region of the country. Icelanders have put this natural resource of geothermal heat to good use, harnessing its eco-friendly and sustainable power for heating and electricity production, which is incredibly cost effective. Even in winter, some of the sidewalks in Reykjavik are heated! Centuries of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, massive waterfalls, and glacial movement have carved some of the most beautiful and geologically-fascinating landscapes ever seen.

One of the many beautiful waterfalls in Iceland

Not everything about Iceland is so majestic, though. This country has been on the receiving end of many harsh blows during its twelve centuries of existence. Celtic monks first arrived in Iceland during the 7th-8th centuries, with Norse settlers following in the 860s-870s. By 930, the Icelandic population had grown to somewhere between 30,000 to 40,000 settlers, and the first known parliament - the Alþingi, or Althing - was established. It is here that chieftains would meet to create laws and resolve judicial problems. Most writings during this time used Latin and Runes until the written Icelandic language was created around 1100.

This evolution of language laid the groundwork for the Icelandic sagas written during the span of 1120 through the 1230s. These were elaborate records of family histories and feuds, and the manuscripts were illuminated by herbal inks in enormous vellum books. The stories being transcribed were already several hundred years old, having been passed down from generation to generation, and the sagas are a source of national pride for Icelanders. These sagas also formed the basis for the impressive genealogy most Icelanders claim, with a very few family histories able to be traced back to settlement times. This task is made easier by the customary use of patronymic, and occasionally matronymic, names. Unlike the family surnames used in America and most English-speaking countries, this practice takes the mother’s or father’s given name and adds -son (son) or -dóttir (daughter). For example, if the father’s name is Bjorn, the child’s last name would become Bjornsson or Bjornsdóttir. Since most Icelanders follow a patrilineal naming tradition, it becomes much easier to trace ones ancestry.

Unfortunately, decades of internal conflict left Iceland vulnerable, and it came under rule of Norway during 1262-1264. Norway then joined with Sweden (1319) and Denmark (1376), and Iceland was officially unified with these countries in the Kalmar Act of Union in 1387. Iceland would eventually come under Danish rule when the Nordic alliance dissolved in 1523. The coming centuries would see tremendous hardship and adversity. In 1402, the Black Death arrived in Iceland and killed over one-third of the population. While it has been speculated this may have been caused by Bubonic Plague (Yersinia Pestis), this is not confirmed. What is known is that wherever the Black Death appeared, around one-third of the population would succumb within 37 days of initial infection. Based on that knowledge, European ports would prohibit anyone from disembarking a ship newly docked in port for 40 days - or in Italian, a quarantina.

Dawn on the Icelandic lava fields while horseback riding

The first official Icelandic census in 1703 recorded a population of 50,358, a modest increase from the original settlement 800 years prior. However, that population would again drop by one-third when the Bubonic plague came to Iceland in 1707. As if two decimating bouts of pestilence weren’t enough, the Icelandic volcano Laki erupted in 1783, continuing to spew for the next eight months. Molten lava eventually covered around 965 square miles of land, creating the lava fields so popular with tourists today. Volcanic ash blanketed farmland. Toxic gases like sulphur dioxide and hydrogen fluoride poisoned livestock, killing approximately half of the cattle and 25% of sheep and horses. Ash fell to the ocean, killing sea life for miles from shore. Icelanders who did not have sufficient stores of uncontaminated food would themselves be poisoned by consuming contaminated meats and vegetation. By the end of 1786, another 25% of the Icelandic population had perished from widespread starvation. These years are known as Móðuharðindin, or "Mist Hardships".

The 1783 Laki eruption did not confine its effects to Iceland. Ash and toxic gases traveled across the atmosphere, creating a haze that extended to Europe and Asia. Think about the spread of ash from the Australian wildfires in January 2020, or the California wildfires over the summer, except on a much larger and prolonged scale. This haze caused droughts across Europe and Japan, as well as long harsh winters and resulting crop failures. Widespread famine and starvation began to consume Europe, creating conditions that eventually led to the French Revolution in 1789.

Laki was not the first, nor would it be the last, time that a volcanic eruption had such a widespread impact on the world and culture. In 1815, Mount Tambora, a volcano near Bali, Indonesia, erupted and caused severe climate disruption in the same way Laki did. 1816 was known as “The Year Without a Summer” because of the cold and constant rain experienced throughout Europe and Asia, although this dismal period inspired Mary Shelley to write “Frankenstein”, so I suppose some good came of it. But back to Iceland…

The Bubonic Plague and Laki devastation only compounded the impact of Einokunarverslunin, or the Danish-Icelandic Trade Monopoly. The Danish King wanted to increase his power in Iceland, so he enacted a set of laws in 1602, which would allow him to set fixed prices favorable to the Danish merchants in Icelandic trading posts. This lasted until 1786. Then in 1800, the Danish King had the brilliant idea to order the Althing closed. That very quintessential symbol of Icelandic law and governance remained shuttered until 1843, when it was re-established. By 1918, Icelanders had decided there was indeed something very rotten in the state of Denmark, and gained full independence and sovereignty under the Union Treaty.

Icelanders did not have too long to enjoy their independence, though. There was this little brouhaha bubbling up in Germany, so in 1940, Britain decided it would be beneficial to “peacefully invade” Iceland to pre-empt a Nazi invasion. Nazis had already occupied Denmark, and while Iceland remained neutral throughout World War II, their strategic location made them an attractive target to the Axis powers. In 1944, the Republic of Iceland was formally established, severing all remaining ties with Denmark, which remained under Nazi occupation.

However, just as Iceland finally established sovereignty over its land, it now faced a challenge for dominion over its waters. Specifically, claims to fishing rights in the North Atlantic. Enter: THE COD WARS! The Cod Wars, you say? Yes. The Cod Wars. I feel like there should be an epic crawl appearing at this point:

“A long time ago in an ocean far away…

It is a period of aquatic war. Rebel longliners,

striking from hidden fjords, have won their first victory against the evil British Empire…”

Rocky coast of the harbor in Reykjavík, Iceland.

See, Britain had been sneaking over to the cod-rich waters near Iceland since the 14th-century, so this was not the first to-do over the matter. Seafood, and especially cod, was integral to the Icelandic diet, but as European populations exploded and commercial fishing became more competitive and industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries, the waters around Iceland became increasingly sought after. The first modern Cod War with Britain took place from 1958-1961, although it was not a war in the conventional sense. Nonetheless, Britain did have warships escort its trawlers to the disputed fishing waters, where they often sparred with Icelandic patrol boats. After Iceland threatened to withdraw from NATO and expel US forces from their base on the Reykjanes peninsula, Britain finally negotiated a settlement. Additional Cod Wars would again take place with Britain (aided by West Germany) in 1972-1973 and 1975-1976, but both of those would also ultimately resolve in Iceland’s favor.

So… after a millennia of hardship, Iceland finally seemed to be moving forward. It was an independent sovereign nation with control of valuable fishing waters, and the population was now more than 200,000 strong. The 21st century was going to be Iceland’s time to shine! Right? I mean, what could *possibly* go wrong???

20-MFing-08. THAT’S what could go wrong, and yowzers, did it ever!

Late 2008 dropped a worldwide economic crisis bomb, to which Yours Truly was witness. I went to Iceland in early December, with a bunch of travellers’ cheques and a crumpled $20 US bill in my purse, fully expecting I could convert those cheques to Icelandic Króna upon arrival at Keflavik Airport.

That did not happen.

“The Crunch”, as it was called in Iceland, was a near total collapse of their banking system. The Króna was incredibly weak. To avoid a run on banks’ currency supplies, NO ONE was converting traveller’s cheques. %$&#!!!!!! (Don’t worry - I worked it out.) For a nation that had had the rug pulled from under its feet time and time again, this was yet another devastating blow. However, poverty, isolation, harsh climate, famine, disease, and centuries of Danish rule have made Icelanders a hearty lot. They rallied in protest outside Parliament every Saturday, with the ruling Haarde government eventually resigning. The economy finally stabilized under a new government led by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.

Whew! That’s quite a history, but important to understanding how Icelanders’ worldview was shaped! In Part Two, we’ll look at folklore, Christmas traditions, and some of the more… “interesting” culinary aspects of Icelandic life. Until then, Takk fyrir lesturinn!

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