Ash Wednesday in Iceland


Ash Wednesday in Iceland

Watch this audio slideshow of Ash Wednesday, Iceland’s answer to Halloween. Originally a Catholic holiday, it marks the beginning of Lent and is celebrated seven weeks before Easter (this year on February 17). In Iceland, children associate it with free candy. They dress up in fancy costumes, and visit shops and companies where they sing in exchange for candy.

Most of the photos in this slideshow were taken by Páll Stefánsson in downtown Reykjavík and the Kringlan shopping mall on Ash Wednesday in 2007.

Narration (and a few photos) by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – [email protected].

Click here to download the slideshow.


In many countries carnival is celebrated at this time of year. In Iceland, the carnival season is limited to three days, bolludagur (Collop Monday), sprengidagur (Shrove Tuesday) and öskudagur (Ash Wednesday).

In the previous two years, I’ve told you about the delicious cream puffs eaten on bolludagur, which literally translates as Bun Day, and the salt meat and bean stew people stuff themselves with on sprengidagur, or Bursting Day.

This year I’d like to tell you more about öskudagur, literally: Ash Day, which in many ways is Iceland’s answer to Halloween.

Children, who have the day off from school, dress up in fancy costumes—all sorts of costumes, not just scary ones—and visit shops and companies where they sing in exchange for candy.

Originally a Catholic holiday, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and is celebrated seven weeks before Easter (this year on February 17), as described on the University of Iceland Science Web.

According to the Bible, ash is holy and on Ash Wednesday in some countries ash is spread over the heads of churchgoers or smeared on their foreheads.

In Iceland, people used to pin bags filled with ash unnoticed on each other’s backs. In some schools in Iceland children make such bags in handicraft classes before Ash Day.

Ash Day in its current form was first celebrated in Akureyri in the early 20th century, but since then the tradition has spread to other parts of the country.

Yet Akureyri remains Iceland’s unofficial Ash Day capital. There, a pinata is hoisted in the town square and children takes turns “beating the cat out of the barrel” as it is called.

Many children are ambitious about their costumes and singing.

Although most costumes are bought nowadays, homemade costumes can also be spotted, which children have obviously put a lot of thought and creativity into.

The most creative costumes I’ve seen in recent years were a playmobil character and an iPod.

A lot of preparation goes into a successful Ash Day team. Siblings, cousins and friends decide who they want to team up with weeks before the big day.

There shouldn’t be more that four or five kids in one team considering the candy must be distributed equally among team members.

Then the teams start practicing. They come up with a list of songs coinciding with the list of workplaces they plan to serenade.

At the dairy it is advisable to sing about cows or the milk man, for example, and about bank robbers at the bank. That is likely to result in more candy.

It is also advisable to be original. People don’t like to hear the same songs over and over again, so the list of songs should include a few oldies or something out of the ordinary.

The really ambitious practice songs from musicals where each team member sings the role of a certain character, or folk songs performed in duet, trio or quartet versions. Members of children’s choirs are always popular in Ash Day teams.

On Ash Day children wake up early to get ready, put on their costumes (it’s advisable to wear something warm underneath) and their make-up before catching up with the rest of their Ash Day team and heading downtown—as soon as the stores open.

Then there is relentless singing until the bags are full with candy or until shopkeepers put up a sing in the window reading: “Krakkar! nammid er búid” (“Kids! there is no more candy”).

In the early afternoon, the children have usually turned cold, hungry and exhausted from all the walking and singing. Then it is time to go home and feast on all the delicious candy until the tummy starts aching.

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