Holy Solstice, Please Let Us Sleep

Holy Solstice, Please Let Us Sleep

Photos by
Nanna Dís
Geidi Raud

Iceland is known for its midnight sun—as early as May and as late as August, Iceland’s nights are as bright as its days. But beyond the initial shock of nearly 24 hours of daylight, there are some surprising sides of the solstice in Iceland, such as its folklore, the difficulties it causes when it comes to sleeping, and the challenges it presents to Muslims fasting for Ramadan.  

The Folklore Behind Solstice

Unlike its brethren in Norway and Denmark, the island nation doesn’t celebrate Summer Solstice with blazing bonfires or much else in the way of festivities, says Dr. Terry Gunnell, Professor in Folkloristics at the University of Iceland. There is some discussion concerning midsummer in the King’s Saga but it’s thought that some time ago Norway changed the old pagan festivals to the current St. John’s Eve celebrations. However, while Norway’s St. John’s Eve merry-making involves roaring bonfires, people in Iceland just didn’t have the wood to burn.

“In Iceland, there are some stories about rolling naked in the dew in the morning of the Midsummer,” says Terry. “This idea that everything is renewed.” Terry also speaks of beliefs that there are powerful ties to good luck during the summer solstice and that it is a particularly good time to collect herbs, when still wet with midsummer dew.

Around this period is when Alþingi, Iceland’s national parliament, would open. Terry says it is likely that if there were midsummer festivities, they would have blended with the activities surrounding Alþing’s commencement.

A Guide To Getting A Good Sleep

Psychologist Erla Björnsdóttir, who has a PhD in biomedical sciences, is helping people to get some sleep during the Iceland’s bright summer nights. She is counselling both Icelanders and foreigners who have trouble sleeping.

SAD22

While most Icelanders have adjusted to it and actually enjoy the sunny days (and nights) because of the harsh winters (when there is only around four or five hours of effective daylight per 24 hours), for tourists it might not be so enjoyable. Not getting good quality sleep at nights can cause insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, anxiety and depression. “Many foreigners come to my clinic to get help because they are having problems with sleeping. There are people from Portugal, Spain, the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, Mexico etc,” Erla says.

  • In most hotels the windows already have thick curtains. But if not, you can always ask staff for better curtains, which don’t let the brightness in.
  • If the curtains don’t do the job, buy yourself a sleeping mask or wear dark sunglasses. Yes, put on your sunglasses in the bed and pretend that you’re on the beach. “You will look stupid but it really helps to fall asleep. Some tourists really need to use fake darkness,” confirms Erla.
  • Eat healthy and avoid consuming any alcohol and caffeine before going to sleep.
  • Relax and take it easy! “It’s really important not to take a long walk or run 10 kilometres before going to bed,” adds Erla.
  • Try to keep a regular sleep schedule and go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. That includes weekends.

Ramadan Under The Midnight Sun

Muslims living in Iceland have some of the longest fasting times in the world this year, as Ramadan falls over the summer solstice. Ramadan is a month-long period when Muslims observe a fast of food and water during daylight hours, and only break their fast when the sun goes down.

In a country such as Iceland, when the sun barely goes below the horizon during the summer, Muslims have only a few hours to break their fast. Rabia Yasmin Khosa, a Muslim from Pakistan who is observing her second Ramadan in Reykjavík, says on average they begin their fast at 2:20 in the morning, and break their fast at 11:50 at night.

“During this two and a half hour duration we have to eat and offer three prayers,” Rabia says.

She adds that for Muslims, fasting during Ramadan is to submit yourself to the will of God, Fasting also helps people experience the hunger of the poor, she says: “Unless you experience something like that for yourself, you can’t really empathize.”

This year, Ramadan will end on July 5, when the sun will set in Reykjavík at 11:47 before rising again a few short hours later at 3:17.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!

Go travel with Grapevine tried and recommended tours by Grapevine. Fund Grapevine journalism by booking with us.