Today is the first day of Harpa, the summer month of the old Icelandic calendar, which is also officially the first day of summer. The holiday always falls on the first Thursday after April 18 and has been a bank holiday since 1921. The First Day of Summer is one of eleven official flag days in Iceland.
Celebrating summer. Archive photo by Páll Kjartansson.
According to the science web of the University of Iceland, the first day of summer was also considered the first day of the year, which is why people used to count their ages, and their animals’ ages, in winters rather than years.
It was common to distribute summer gifts on the First Day of Summer in Iceland, four centuries before Christmas presents became a tradition, and the summer gift tradition is still practiced in some households. People celebrated with a feast, often finer than on Christmas Eve.
Farmers took a break from their hard work and children were allowed to play with their friends from the neighboring farms. The day was dedicated to young women and to children (it is also known as Children’s Day). On this day young men would often reveal whom they fancied.
Another tradition on the First Day of Summer, called húslestur, involved people getting together and listening to readings from the Icelandic sagas, poems or other literature.
If the weather was summery, farmers would let their cattle and rams out, to allow the animals to greet summer, and to also entertain themselves by watching the animals play.
People used to go to mass on the First Day of Summer until the mid 18th century when the inspectors of the Danish church authority discovered that mass was being held on this heathen day and banned the practice.
According to legend, people considered it a good sign if summer and winter “froze together” (if there was frost on the last night before summer).
People would put a bowl filled with water outside to check whether it had frozen in the early hours of the next morning, before the morning sun could melt it. If the water had frozen, the summer would be a good one.
Happy summer everyone!