June 17th was the date of the 1953 uprising in East Berlin, the Watergate burglary of 1972 and the repealing of Apartheid laws in South Africa in 1991. It also happens to be Iceland’s independence day, as June 17, 1944 was the day we officially said “tough luck” to Nazi-occupied Denmark and went our own merry way. While some Danes still begrudge us that little faux pas, in Iceland June 17th is a day of unbridled celebration of the young nation’s pseudo-traditions.
There are a few essential elements that are part of the annual celebrations to be aware of, even though they aren’t the most exciting part of the experience. Church bells in central Reykjavík all chime at five minutes to ten in the morning, after which a ceremonial wreath is laid on the grave of 19th century independence activist Jón Sigurðsson. A little later there is an opening ceremony at Austurvöllur and more wreaths are placed in honour of the late Mr. Sigurðsson, this time at the foot of his prominently displayed monument/statue. There is a short speech by a lovely young lady in traditional Icelandic garb, the so-called “Woman of the Mountains,” followed by a spot of church before the fun stuff gets going. Just before two o’clock there is a usually well-attended parade down Laugavegur. Sugar-crazed kids with balloons and face paint are everywhere, as this part of the celebration very much belongs to the children.
This year everything went more or less the same as usual, although the customary rain shower was more of a persistent mist than the traditional deluge we have come to expect. As one of the few lone males in his twenties marching with the kiddies and their parents, this Grapevine reporter tried to take in the atmosphere and relive the memories without getting arrested for being a weirdo. It turned out the quickest way to flashback was to partake in the culinary part of the experience. Surely there is not an Icelander amongst us who doesn’t have a pleasant June 17th memory that involves at least two of the following three ingredients: a hot dog at Bæjarins Bestu, a Coke (preferably in a glass bottle) and a bar of the nation’s favourite chocolate, Prins Polo. My particular Coke, hot dog and Prins Polo memory was actually engineered by nostalgic parents, but by the looks of the pandemonium outside Bæjarins Bestu the tradition is far from dead. Undeterred, I moved on and managed to acquire a Coke and a Prins, finding that it set the mood perfectly for the rest of the day.
The middle of the day is dominated by family-friendly entertainment, but if you don’t like clowns and mini-golf you can always seek out some of the street artists and other performers that perform in various central locations throughout the day. This year there was singing, dancing, wrestling, kung fu, strongman truck-pulling, sailing, handball and god knows what else – and like always it was morosely enjoyed by the older generation who stood around and nodded in appreciation of the spectacle.
At 18:00 the tide definitely started to turn as the younger children were now coming down hard from their sugar highs and simultaneously realising they had misplaced their colourful balloons somewhere in the stratosphere above. The hip-hop concert at Lækjargata, and the rock concert at Arnarhóll, definitely drove this point home. The parents retreated with their youngest, leaving behind a heavy concentration of ten to twelve-year-olds who freely mingled with the intoxicated teenagers who had come to see the concerts. This combination may be a bit odd for non-natives, but this is generally how it goes here, as children in Iceland seem determined to grow up – or at least associate with grownups at activities like rock concerts – at much younger ages than you might expect. As the concerts progressed, the median age went up sharply and the average blood alcohol level climbed to new heights. Once the music was over the night turned into a predictably rambunctious night of sin and pleasure in downtown Reykjavík, albeit with a somewhat larger crowd than usual.
Overall the day went as could be expected, and that is a good thing. Every society has its unifying elements of ritual and tradition (however newfangled or contrived). Radical change or excitement just isn’t part of the June 17th equation in Iceland, and as fervent as our nationalism may seem at other times the main event is surprisingly impotent and casual. Eating hot dogs in the rain while watching amateur clowns may seem a tad bleak and pointless to the casual observer, but hey, as a means of maintaining cohesion it sure beats book burnings.