If you have a passing familiarity with Christianity, you might know that today is Ash Wednesday, or the first day of Lent. For many parts of the world, this is a solemn affair, wherein the faithful go to mass, have a priest trace a cross with ashes on their forehead, and get told by the priest either “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
In Iceland, however, Öskudagur (literally “ashes day”) takes a much more cheerful turn, for adults and kids alike.
For grown-ups, this meant taking some of the ashes and blessing their homes with them. More playfully, women would make tiny bags of ashes and furtively attach them to men, while men would make tiny bags of rocks and hang them on women. It’s an old tradition, dating back to at least the 18th century, but is today all but unheard of.
In more modern times, Icelanders know Öskudagur to be more child-focused. Children dress in costumes and roam their towns or villages, visiting shops. There, they sing, dance, or tell a joke in order to receive candy in exchange. This has led to some people erroneously referring to Öskudagur as “Icelandic Halloween”, but apart from the part where kids dress in costumes and get candy, the two holidays have little in common.
The pandemic will likely not deter these children from visiting shops this year, either. Children born in 2005 or later are exempt from coronavirus restrictions, and are not counted in the total number of people in any given shop. A lot of them will also probably be wearing a mask of some kind. As such, the biggest worry children will have will be as evening descends and shops run out of candy.
For a glimpse at what this holiday means for Icelandic children, here’s a video we shot last year on this special day.
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