Thinking about having an Easter break somewhere? Want to experience another country’s Easter traditions? Hop over to Iceland and enjoy what it has to offer. If you’re from the west, you’ll find some similarities. But you’ll also be exposed to a unique take on this holiday period that you’re sure to love. Replace the Easter bunny with an Easter chick and you’re starting off on your Icelandic Easter adventure.
Iceland Easter Holidays
Let’s start with a look at Iceland’s routine regarding the public holidays. Maundy Thursday, or Skírdagur (Christening Day) as it’s known here, is a public holiday. Many businesses are closed and a lot of Icelanders use this as the day to start a five-day trip away. Although Iceland is not very religious, there is an old law that takes the significance of Easter seriously. No festivities are permitted on Good Friday (föstudagurinn langi, or Long Friday) and so bars and clubs must close by midnight on Skírdagur and cannot reopen until after midnight on Good Friday. But that doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had, as cultural events like theatre shows and concerts are excepted. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are also public holidays and so opening hours of shops will change; however, most restaurants will stay open. Easter Monday or Annar í páskum (Second day of Easter) is another public holiday.
Easter Traditions in Iceland
The majority of Icelanders belong to the Lutheran Church of Iceland, and although the religious sentiment is not strong, many churches will hold services on Good Friday. For example, there is always a service in Hallgrimskirkja (the huge church in the downtown area). This is worth attending even just to admire the building from the inside.
Chocolate Easter eggs are just as much of a tradition here as they are in many other western countries. However, Icelanders keep their eggs native, so they are only made with Icelandic chocolate and only contain Icelandic sweets inside. Also inside is an Icelandic proverb, similar to a fortune cookie message. Icelandic children take their egg choosing seriously; there are many to choose from, so picking ‘the one’ is considered for days in advance. The decoration of the egg is just as important as the taste. Traditionally, Easter eggs are topped with a small, furry, yellow chick toy. In recent years various companies have topped the eggs with other small toys, in keeping with modern themes. But Icelandic children don’t just have their chocolate presents given to them. On Easter Sunday morning, many children will hunt for the eggs themselves; their parents hide them in the house or garden and create cryptic clues to aid in the search. These egg hunts promise a welcome reward for the hard work; a day filled with eating lots of chocolate. Additionally, yellow is sort of the signature color of Easter in Iceland. Younger children will spend some time leading up to Easter decorating small items with a yellow theme.
Easter Sunday rounds off with a fancy dinner, which traditionally centers around lamb’s leg. This leg is called “páskalamb” or “Easter lamb”.
Many Icelanders venture to Ísafjörður for the famous rock music festival, Aldrei fór ég suður (I Never Went South). This festival lasts for two days, from Good Friday to Saturday. Other locals use the long weekend to go skiing or snowboarding. They either venture to Bláfjöll, the mountain local to Reykjavik, or head north to places like Akureyri. So, if you’re a fan of winter sports, consider joining the locals and heading to where the snow is.
Since it will likely still be cold in Easter, it’s a great time to indulge in the Icelandic tradition of relaxing in a thermal pool. There are seven public thermal pools in Reykjavik, all heated naturally, and the experience is not to be missed. Sundhöllin on Barónsstígur is a personal favorite. It is the oldest public baths in Reykjavik and features an indoor pool, several outdoor hot baths, cold pool, steam room and sauna. Watching the sun set while sitting in a warm pool is a magical experience.
There is also an interesting modern activity that a society known as Vantrú began several years ago. The law regarding festivities being illegal on Good Friday specifically mentions bingo. So, Vantrú organizes a yearly bingo game in the Parliament Square on that day to protest the law. No one has ever been arrested so the protests are essentially successful. However, as of 2019 bingo is now legal on all of the Christian holidays, so perhaps the annual game of bingo will not continue.
Keep in mind that although most restaurants will stay open throughout the Easter period, the opening times of supermarkets will alter. Play it safe and complete your food shopping on the Wednesday to ensure you’re stocked up.