Christmas in Iceland: New Year’s Eve
Icelanders celebrate New Year’s Eve with fireworks, bonfires, and “elf dances.” The bonfires can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when they began as a means of getting rid of holiday trash. Icelanders continue to enjoy dressing up as elves, trolls, or imps on New Year’s Eve. This custom reflects a long-standing belief that magical creatures are out in force on this evening.
According to Icelandic folklore, all manner of supernatural events may occur on New Year’s Eve. The dead may rise from their graves, animals may speak, and seals may transform themselves briefly into human beings. What’s more, elves are believed to be especially active on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Until recently many people left at least one light burning on these nights as a way of welcoming the elves.
According to Icelandic folklore, elves move their homes on New Year’s Eve. This same lore taught that those who catch the elves in the middle of their move might gain an elvish blessing for good luck and wealth. To this end, it recommended that those who dared risk an encounter with these magical beings sit at a crossroads on New Year’s Eve. If an elf traveling on either road wanted to get by, he or she would try to lure the human to move with promises of money, treasure, food, and other tempting things. Those who stood their ground and spoke no word until morning would gain all the promised treasures. On the other hand, if their mood turned sour, the elves could wish ill fortune on the humans who had interrupted their journey.
In past times many people offered the elves hospitality on New Year’s Eve by performing special house cleanings and leaving food and lights burning in an out-of-the-way nook or corner. Some walked about their house three times and announced a welcome to the elves, promising them safe usage of the premises for the evening.
Another bit of old lore claimed that frost that drifted into the house through an open pantry window on this night was especially sweet and that it brought with it the promise of abundance. The only difficulty was that in order to collect this “pantry drift,” a housewife had to stay awake all night in a dark pantry with the window open to the stern cold of an Icelandic winter night, while the drift slowly collected in a pot on the floor. Once this task was completed, a design made up of crosses was traced over the pot, which prevented the prosperity from escaping. No statistics exist to tell us how many women took up this icy challenge.