We turned to a historian and a cemetery curator for answers
If you’ve ever spent the holiday season in Iceland and have walked around the urban areas, you’ve probably noticed how bright and colourful not just the homes of the living are, but also those of the dead. Most graves are festively decorated with candles and it’s tradition to visit the resting places of loved ones on December 24. But why on that specific date? How come the dead are honoured on Christmas and not during Autumn, as is tradition in so many other parts of the world? To learn more, we spoke to not one but two experts: historian Sólveig Ólafsdóttir and her husband Heimir Björn Janusarson, the curator of Hólavallagarður Cemetery.
“Candlelight has always been really important, going back to Iceland’s old farm societies,” Heimir begins. “It was tradition to keep a candle lit throughout Christmas night. Children would also have to get at least one new item of clothing as well as at least one candle, though back then they were made not of wax but of fat, so they could even be eaten. It’s best not to imaging the smell of a bunch of fat candles burning down in an old baðstófa. But the time also coincides with the winter solstice when you would light big bonfires to light the sun back up; help restart it, so to speak.”
Sólveig adds that, “Christmas and this solstice period also mark a big change, in the weather for instance. January is when it gets really bad, so Christmas is almost like the last respite. You were encouraged to work as little as possible in the time between Christmas and the New Year. So far up north it is also possible that the solstice was even more meaningful in all this darkness.”
Light carries a lot of meaning both in a practical sense – in the everlasting darkness of the Icelandic winter where one lit candle can already make all the difference – but also in a strongly symbolic way.
As Heimir explains, “Remembering the dead is also a big tradition and you do that with light. Though it wasn’t very common to have light outside in Iceland for the longest time. You see this tradition of remembrance in other communities as well, like the Polish one for instance, when they visit the cemeteries on All Saint’s Day, bringing candles to the clocktower (at Hólavallagarður) or to the memorial of Polish sailors at Fossvogskirkjugarður.”
As for the difference in timing Sólveig points out that, “Halloween in Europe is also at the end of the harvest season, which in Iceland is much sooner, around September when the sheep are brought back from the mountains and sorted.”
Both Sólveig and Heimir also point to Iceland’s transition from Catholic to Lutheran in the 1500s as an important aspect in Christmas becoming a day of remembrance. “We just killed all our Saints in one blow,” as Sólveig puts it. “And with them all the various church masses and feasts spread out over the year, but they couldn’t kill Christmas the same way.” Christmas and New Year’s festivities arguably took on the extra weight of those remembrance celebrations. Thus we can see a culmination of factors, from seasonal circumstances to historic determinants and light as an ever-present focal point to see why Icelanders go to visit the graves of their ancestors on Dec. 24.
“With older graveyards like Hólavallagrður, it’s less about grief and more of a celebration,” Heimir says. “It can be a meeting point for more distant family members, too. And often it’s kids coming with their grandparents to give parents at home some preparation time.”
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