It may involve little kids in costumes begging for candy, but the comparisons between Halloween and Öskudagur end there.
Today is Ash Wednesday to the Catholic world at large. It is the first day of Lent, the long period of fasting leading up to Easter. In Iceland, this day is Öskudagur, literally “ashes day”, and has little to do with fasting or religion anymore.
Today, Öskudagur is characterised by the charming sight of children wandering around town in costumes. They will visit places of business and ask for candy. While this has led many people to compare the holiday to Halloween, the similarities between Halloween and Öskudagur extend no further than costumes and candy.
For one, Icelandic children are not given candy simply by asking for it; they have to earn their treats, usually with a song. For another, Halloween has its roots in a pre-Christian pagan tradition whereby late autumn was devoted to remembrance of the dead. The roots of Öskudagur are decidedly Christian, although the traditions around this day have taken different twists and turns over the generations.
Originally, children would dress up in costumes on Bolludagur, and have a parade. This was the case through the 19th century, and originated in Norway and Denmark. In 1917, the children-in-costumes aspect was moved to Öskudagur.
Another important part of Öskudagur involves the ashes themselves. As those familiar with Ash Wednesday know, part of this holiday involves attending mass, wherein a priest will make the mark of the cross on congregant’s foreheads with ashes. In Iceland, people were fond of taking these ashes with them to bless their homes, and would take some out of church in a little bag. This led to the tradition of hanging bags of ashes on people, a practice that can be traced back to the 18th century and is probably older still, which even has a gendered aspect to it: traditionally, women hang little bags of ashes on men, while men hang little bags of rocks on women.
While the ash bags tradition is almost completely gone, you will still see children wandering around downtown today, going from shop to shop to sing for candy. This is also why, as evening approaches, you will see signs hanging in numerous shop windows reading NAMMI BÚIÐ – “candy finished” – the bane of many an Icelandic child.
In the video below, The Grapevine Staff walk the streets of Reykjavík, seeking out candy and uncovering the history of Öskudagur for themselves, while also being serenaded.
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