Icelandic summer

Today is sumardagurinn fyrsti – the first day of summer in Iceland. Since 1971 the first day of summer is a national holiday, complete with celebrations, parades, sporting events. At +13 Celsius (55.4 Fahrenheit) it’s a really warm summer day as well. I am not joking.

When we first came to Iceland in June 2017, the temperature on the day of our arrival was +14 Celsius. We saw boys on skateboards, having fun on the street, wearing tiny tank tops. I was dressed in full leather from head to toe and wouldn’t say that I was in danger of overheating. We asked our landlady whether it was normal for kids to dress like this in sub-Arctic temperatures. She explained that +14 in June was, in fact, a heatwave. She wasn’t lying. On the day of our departure it was +7 at the Keflavík airport and +29 when we arrived in Amsterdam (40 degrees Fahrenheit difference). This was how I discovered that I was now old enough not to cope with heat well and realised with a startle that I preferred the cold.

First day of summer in April? Sounds legit

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll probably guess: I’m going to go a thousand (and a bit) years ago, then talk about the Norsemen.

The Norse calendar divided the year into two seasons: winter and summer. The first day of summer fell around April 14, which was later altered by the church of Iceland to fall on the second Thursday after the Saint’s day of Pope Leo I (11 April). None of those dates make sense to 21st century humans, who see June 21st (i.e. the longest day of the year) as the first day of summer. Today in Iceland the length of day (measured as the time between sunrise and sunset) will already exceed 16 hours, with the sun no longer completely going below the horizon. Below, a photo taken in the middle of the night in April last year. This was as dark as it got while we waited to see the Northern lights.

Norse calendar

The Norse did not count years in numeric way as we do today. Instead, the date was determined by the amount of time that had passed since some sort of a well-known event (for instance, “five winters since the battle at X”), and a person’s age was determined by the amount of winters they have lived. The summer lasted from April 15 to October 13. It wasn’t until the 12th century when an Icelandic scholar Ari “the Wise” Þorgilsson attempted to convert the Norse dates into Christian ones, which is how we are nowadays able to date events in Viking history – with varying precision, but it’s still easier to relate to “860 AD” than “eight winters after a battle that took place six winters after the other battle, which…”.

As you might know, the English days of the week are actually a… translation of the Norse ones:

  • Monday (Old Norse: Mánadagr) = the moon day
  • Tuesday (Týsdagr) = Týr’s day
  • Wednesday (Óðinsdagr) = Odin’s day
  • Thursday (Þórsdagr) = Thor’s day
  • Friday (Frjádagr) = Freya’s (or Frigg’s) day
  • Saturday (Laugardagr) = Bath day
  • Sunday (Sunnudagr) = guess what? The sun day!

Interestingly, the Icelandic names for the days of the week have been modified, as the Church of Iceland didn’t like the idea of celebrating the Old Gods on daily basis. It is because of this that sumardagurinn fyrsti falls on a fimmtudagur – the fifth day, as counted from Sunday. Many centuries have passed and now the most famous church in Iceland, Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrímur’s Church), is placed near Þórsgata, Lokastigur, Freyjugata, and to its right you will find Café Loki. I will, however, admit that the streets directly surrounding Hallgrímskirkja do not bear heathen-related names – just in case, I assume.

Harpa – the women’s month

The first day of summer, Gaukmánuður/Harpa, was the women’s day – or rather the first day of Harpa, the women’s month. (There were two, by the way – between February 12 and March 13 Gói, the other women’s month, was celebrated, with the men’s month in between Gói and Harpa.) The two months that followed Harpa – Skerpla (unknown) and Sólmánuður (sun’s month) were known as Nóttleysa, or insomnia. I can confirm the accuracy of the name, as I already needed a sleep mask in April – and obviously even more in June, i.e. towards the end of Skerpla. The darkest months of winter were known as Skammdegí, the Dark Days – the shortest day in December gives Icelanders less than five hours of daylight, again measured as the time between sunrise and sunset, which means that on cloudy December days it never really gets light. Many Icelanders leave the country in that period to avoid seasonal depression, or spend time with friends, playing games, eating, making sure there’s as much light and as little isolation as possible.

The first day of summer is not necessarily celebrated due to being the first warm day, as there are years when the temperature actually drops below freezing threshold (which signifies an extremely warm and long summer – maybe even +16 Celsius degrees!). Summer is Freyr’s period, the time of growth, fertility, sunshine, fair weather. It starts today.

Resources/further reading:

The Viking Calendar

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