Jan 062019
 

Today is Þrettándinn (literally, the thirteenth) in Iceland, their equivalent of Epiphany marking the end of the Christmas season. Icelanders follow both the traditional Christian calendar to mark the season, and also a traditional calendar that specifically mark Yule. According to the church calendar the Advent season begins four Sundays before Christmas Day, with an Advent wreath and 4 candles marking the progress through Advent.

According to the traditional Icelandic calendar, Yule begins 13 days before Christmas, and on the eve of this day, children leave their shoes by a window so that the Yule Lads can leave them small gifts. The Yule Lads are the sons of two trolls living in the Icelandic mountains. Each of the Yule Lads is known for a different kind of mischief (for example slamming doors, stealing meat, stealing milk or eating the candles). The Yule Lads traditionally wear early Icelandic wool clothing but are now more commonly depicted in red and white suits. Each home typically sets up a Christmas tree indoors in the living room with most decorating it on December 11. In addition to the decorations, presents are put underneath the tree. It is also a tradition in many homes to boil skate on the 23rd of December. The day is called Saint Thorlak Mass (Þorláksmessa).

The end of year is divided between two days – the Old Year’s Day (Gamlársdagur) and the New Year’s Day (Nýársdagur). At the night of the former and morning of the latter Icelanders set off fireworks blowing the old year away and welcoming the new one. Thirteen days after Christmas (6th January) Icelanders say goodbye to the Yule Lads and other mystical creatures such as elves and trolls. There are bonfires held throughout the country while the elves, Yule Lads, and Icelanders dance together before saying goodbye until the next Christmas.

According to folk traditions and tales, Þrettándinn is gloriously weird: it is a time of talking animals, aquatic metamorphoses, naked dancing, supernatural gifts, and precognitive dreams. In some ways it is like Samhain in the Celtic world where the human and spirit realms come together for a time. These are a few tales and traditions:

Icelanders make the most of New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn, indulging their pyrotechnic sides: large bonfires are regularly held on both New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn. The bonfires celebrate all of the fairies and elves who are said to be departing on Þrettándinn, and many local celebrations elect Fairy Queens and Kings who lead ‘elf dances’ around the fire. Elf dance traditions may originate with a popular play called “Nýársnóttin,” or ‘New Year’s Eve,’ which was written by Indriði Einarsson in 1907 and first featured the King and Queen of the elves.

According to some local traditions, such as on the Northern island of Grímsey, Þrettándinn is known as “The Great Dreaming Night.” The dreams that you have on this night must be taken very seriously, as they may hold clues to the future.

On the evening of Þrettándinn, many folktales say that cows can suddenly speak. There are many variations on this story—in some versions, for instance, they specifically speak Hebrew. In one version collected by Jón Árnason, a cowhand hangs around in the barn after his work is done on Þrettándinn. Around midnight, the cows all stand up and begin to speak to each other in nonsensical rhyming couplets, which are supposed to drive anyone who overhears them crazy. The cowhand escapes before he fully loses it, but is unable to prove his tale to anyone the next day. In other variations, however, the cowman is not so lucky, and goes mad listening to bovine poetry.

There are many folktales about seals transforming into humans on New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn. In one variation, seals are actually the animal incarnations of an ancient Pharaoh’s army, drowned in the Red Sea while chasing Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt. The drowned soldiers became seals, but their bones remain much like human bones. So once a year, they become human, shedding their skins and dancing naked on beaches. In one famous tale, a man goes walking on a beach and sees many seal skins lying on the shore. He takes one home with him and locks it in a chest. Later, he discovers a beautiful naked woman crying on the same beach because he’s taken her skin and she cannot return to the sea. He takes her home, marries her, and they have many children, but he keeps the seal skin locked away so that she can never escape. One day, however, he forgets to take the key to the chest, and the woman retrieves her skin and returns to the ocean.

Þrettándinn is often thought to be the day in which fairies and elves leave their current dwellings and find new homes. In some traditions, residents walk around the home asking for the family’s continued well-being while those spirits who have arrived to come in, and those who want to leave go on their ways. Þrettándinn is a time to say goodbye to the spirits. As the fairies take their leave and the elves move house, so also the last Yule Lad leaves town. Iceland’s thirteen Yule Lads arrive one by one on the days leading up to Christmas, and then also leave one at a time on the thirteen days following. The last Yule Lad to leave is Kertasníkir, or “Candle Beggar.”

Traditionally, Þrettándinn is the last day for people to get their fill of Christmas decadence. So, Icelanders “burn out” Christmas by finishing off the remains of their candles, “eat up” the season by finishing all the leftovers, and “play out” the day with long card games.

During the holiday season, it is traditional for families to work together to bake small cookies to serve or give to guests. Most common are thin gingerbread cookies which are decorated in many different colors of glaze. Many families also follow the tradition of making Laufabrauð (Leafbread), which is a flat thin bread that is cut out using a special tool and folding technique. Here is a very good instructional video, with no voice over but plenty of visuals and quantities of ingredients given in English (and Spanish !!).

Mar 012018
 

You get a Scandinavian two-fer today, having to do with the Swedish calendar in effect in the early 18th century and beer prohibition in Iceland.

The Swedish calendar (Svenska kalendern) or Swedish style (Svenska stilen) was a calendar in use in Sweden and its possessions from 1 March 1700 until 30 February 1712. It was one day ahead of the Julian calendar and ten days behind the Gregorian calendar. In November 1699, the Government of Sweden decided that, rather than adopt the Gregorian calendar outright, it would gradually approach it over a 40-year period. The plan was to skip all leap days in the period 1700 to 1740. Every fourth year, the gap between the Swedish calendar and the Gregorian would reduce by one day, until they finally lined up in 1740. In the meantime, this calendar would not be in line with either of the major alternative calendars and the differences would change every four years.

In accordance with the plan, February 29 was omitted in 1700, but the Great Northern War stopped any further reductions from being made in the following years.In January 1711, King Charles XII declared that Sweden would abandon the calendar, which was not in use by any other nation, in favor of a return to the older Julian calendar. An extra day was added to February in the leap year of 1712, thus giving it a unique 30-day length. February 30th has never existed in any other modern calendar.

In 1753, one year later than England and its colonies, Sweden introduced the Gregorian calendar. The leap of 11 days was accomplished in one step, with February 17 being followed by March 1. Easter was to be calculated according to the Easter rules of the Julian calendar from 1700 until 1739, but from 1700 to 1711, Easter Sunday was dated in the anomalous Swedish calendar, according to its own rules. In 1740, Sweden finally adopted the “improved calendar” already adopted by the Protestant states of Germany in 1700 (which they used until 1775). Its improvement was to calculate the full moon and vernal equinox of Easter according to astronomical tables, specifically Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables at the meridian of Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg observatory (destroyed long before) on the former Danish island of Hven near the southern tip of Sweden. In addition to the usual medieval rule that Easter was the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, the astronomical Easter Sunday was to be delayed by one week if this calculation would have placed it on the same day as the first day of Jewish Passover week, Nisan 15. It conflicts with the Julian Easter, which could not occur on the 14th day of the moon (Nisan 14), but was permitted on Nisan 15 to 21 although those dates were calculated via Christian, not Jewish, tables. The resulting astronomical Easter dates in the Julian calendar used in Sweden from 1740 to 1752 occurred on the same Sunday as the Julian Easter every three years but were earlier than the earliest canonical limit for Easter of March 22 in 1742, 1744 and 1750.

After the adoption of the Gregorian solar calendar in 1753, three astronomical Easter dates were one week later than the Gregorian Easter in 1802, 1805 and 1818. Before Sweden formally adopted the Gregorian Easter in 1844, two more should have been delayed in 1825 and 1829 but were not. Finland was part of Sweden until 1809 when it became the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire due to the Finnish War. Until 1866, Finland continued to observe the astronomical Easter, which was one week after the Gregorian Easter in 1818, 1825, 1829 and 1845. However, Russia then used the Julian calendar and Julian Easter so the comparison given above applies: that the astronomical Easter agreed with the Julian Easter about every third year but was sometimes earlier than March 22 in the Julian calendar.

Beer day in Reykjavik, Iceland-Beer festival

In Iceland, Beer Day (Icelandic: Bjórdagurinn or Bjórdagur) is celebrated every year on March 1, honoring the elimination of the 74-year prohibition of beer. Beer prohibition lasted from January 1, 1915 to March 1, 1989. In a 1908 referendum, Icelanders voted in favor of a ban on all alcoholic drinks, going into effect Jan. 1, 1915. In 1921, the ban was partially lifted after Spain refused to buy Iceland’s main export, fish, unless Iceland bought Spanish wines; then lifted further after a national referendum in 1935 came out in favor of legalizing spirits. Strong beer (with an alcohol content of 2.25% or more), however, was not included in the 1935 vote in order to please the temperance lobby—which argued that because beer is cheaper than spirits, it would lead to more depravity.

As international travel brought Icelanders back in touch with beer, bills to legalize it were regularly moved in parliament, but inevitably were shot down on technical grounds. Prohibition lost more support in 1985, when the Minister of Justice (himself a teetotaler) prohibited pubs from adding (legal) spirits to legal non-alcoholic beer (called “pilsner” by Icelanders) to make a potent imitation of strong beer. Soon after, a full turnout of the upper house of Iceland’s Parliament voted 13 to 8 to permit the sale of beer, ending prohibition.

On the first Beer Day, Ölstofan bar owner Kormákur Geirharðsson recalls in The Reykjavik Grapevine:

I remember a lot of drinking and a lot of pissing all night long and the next days, and it [was] not stopping. This was the day Icelanders took the step to try to become civilized. Ölstofan was not open then, but the idea of owning a bar started there.

Following the end of prohibition, Icelanders have celebrated every Beer Day by drinking beer in various bars, restaurants, and clubs. Those located in Reykjavík are especially wild on Beer Day. A Rúntur (pub crawl) is a popular way of getting to know the various bars and beers in this city, many being open until 4:00 a.m. the next day. The legalization of beer remains a cultural milestone in Iceland, and a major seismic shift in the nation’s alcoholic beverage preference. Beer has today become the most popular alcoholic beverage of choice in Iceland.

To celebrate Sweden’s and Iceland’s faltering steps forward in calendar development and beer consumption I present a new Scandinavian recipe for beef stew with beer and rye bread from this website (slightly edited): http://www.newscancook.com/episodes/hearty-beef-stew-with-beer-and-rye-bread/  The recipe is not unlike other recipes for beef in beer that can be found throughout northern Europe, but it is new for Scandinavia. It does use a different method for browning the meat and onions that is attractive. Use a dark Scandinavian beer if you can find it. I don’t drink alcohol, but as with all such recipes I recommend accompanying the dish with the same beer that you cook with. When cooking with alcohol it is a hard and fast rule of mine not to use anything in the recipe that I would not normally offer to drink.

Scandinavian Beef Stew with Beer and Rye Bread

Ingredients

3 lb/1.4 kg beef brisket, cut into 1 ½ inch (3-4cm) pieces
1 onion, peeled and chopped
3-5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp cooking oil
2 carrots, peeled chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 handful dried porcini, or other dried mushrooms
1 cup/2.5 dl dark beer
1 or 2 slices dried, dark rye bread, in pieces
1-2 tbsp butter
salt

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 500˚F (250˚C). Place a heavy cast iron pot with lid in the oven when you turn it on.

When the oven is hot, take the oven-proof dish out. Add the meat, onion and oil. Leave them to brown for 2 minutes, stirring once or twice, then add the rest of the ingredients. Season with salt to taste. Put the lid on.

Return the dish to the oven, reduce the heat to 200˚F (95˚C) and leave for 3-4 hours. Try not to open the dish or pot before serving.

Jun 052016
 

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Today is Sjómannadagurinn, meaning ‘sailors’ day’ or ‘seamen’s day’ in Iceland, a day to honor all those involved in the country’s fisheries, particularly those working at sea. Sjómannadagurinn is celebrated on the first Sunday of June all over the country, with the biggest festivals often held in towns where fisheries are the main source of employment. Although Sjómannadagurinn is officially on a Sunday, many places begin festivities on the Saturday. The day was first celebrated in Reykjavik and Ísafjörður (West Fjords) back in 1938, but even before that Icelanders had a tradition of holding special church services for seamen before the fishing vessels departed after the winter break. The day was made official in 1987.

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Fishing is an important part of Iceland’s economy, so celebrating people in the fishing industry is only natural. Nowadays small fishing villages around the country, even more than in Reykjavík. Events cover the waterfront (literally). There are parades, plays, music, boat races, games, simulated sea rescues . . . you name it. I think the Ugly Fish Display (strange fish exhibited on ice) is my favorite.

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Tourism is now an important part of Iceland’s economy as well and many of my friends have traveled there recently. It’s not high on my priority list because I’m not a fan of cold and ice, and bland food does not exactly beckon me either. But I have several Icelandic friends I would like to visit, and Icelandic literature from its Viking past has an allure. I know a lot of people go for the geothermally heated natural pools, but I’ll pass. Not my thing. Maybe some fermented shark would work.

Iceland’s traditional cuisine is based on fish, lamb, and dairy products, with little to no use of herbs or spices. Due to the island’s climate, fruits and vegetables are not generally a component of traditional dishes, although the use of greenhouses has made them more common in contemporary food. Nowadays Icelandic chefs focus on the freshness of ingredients rather than traditional recipes, so you’ll find a wide range of dishes available.

I gave a recipe for the classic plokkfiskur here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/thjodhatidardagurinn-icelandic-national-day/ .  Still very popular among Icelanders. I suppose I could give a recipe for broiled puffin, which is also still quite popular, but getting one to cook might prove tricky. Here’s a simple Icelandic recipe for baked fish. I’m sorry it’s not more complex; that’s the nature of the beast. I promise to give a recipe for sheep’s head next time I post on Iceland. But today is a fishing holiday, so it really has to be a fish dish. Cod is the traditional favorite, but any firm white fish will work. The cheese you choose will determine the nature of the dish. Iceland has a strong dairy industry, but not a great heritage of traditional cheeses. Locally produced cheeses tend towards the “cheddar” variety, so you can use your own local version of the same, or a German melting cheese, such as emmental or tilsit.

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Bakaðurfiskur

Ingredients

1 tbsp butter
6 fish fillets
1 lemon
salt, pepper to taste
200 g grating cheese, grated
1 tbsp prepared mustard
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup breadcrumbs

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

Grease a baking dish well and place the fillets in it in a single layer. Season the fish with salt, pepper and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Spread an even layer of grated cheese over the fish.

Mix the mustard with the cream and pour it over fish fillets. Top with an even layer of breadcrumbs.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 35 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are evenly golden. If necessary, turn the dish halfway through cooking to ensure that the top is even.

Serve with mashed or boiled potatoes and thickly buttered dark rye bread.

Jun 172013
 

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Today is Þjóðhátíðardagurinn (Icelandic National Day), a holiday in Iceland that celebrates the day in 1944 that The Republic of Iceland was formed. The date of 17 June was chosen because it is the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson, a major figure in Icelandic culture and the leader of the 19th century Icelandic independence movement.

For nearly 300 years from the arrival of the first permanent settlers (a combination of Nordic and Celtic seafarers), Iceland had been independent and isolated. However, through the signing of the Old Covenant in 1262, following years of bloody civil strife, Icelanders relinquished sovereignty to Haakon IV, King of Norway. Iceland remained under Norwegian kingship until 1380, when with the death of Olav IV of Norway the Norwegian male royal line ended. Norway (and thus Iceland) then became part of the Kalmar Union, along with Sweden and Denmark, with Denmark as the dominant power. Iceland remained under Danish control until the 19th century

Around the middle of the 19th century a new national consciousness emerged in Iceland (as in all of Europe), led by Danish-educated Icelandic intellectuals who had been inspired by romantic and nationalist ideas from continental Europe, chief of whom was Jón Sigurðsson. In 1843, a royal decree re-established a national parliament, the Althing, as a consultative assembly (named for a former parliament).

The struggle for independence reached its height in 1851 when the Danes tried to pass new legislation, the requests for which the Icelanders ignored. The Icelandic delegates, under the leadership of Jón Sigurðsson, passed their own proposals instead, much to the displeasure of the King’s agent, who dissolved the meeting. This caused Sigurðsson to rise up with his fellow delegates and utter the immortal phrase Vér mótmælum allir (“We all protest”).

In 1874, a thousand years after the first permanent settlement of Iceland, Denmark granted Iceland home rule. The constitution, written in 1874, was revised in 1903, and a minister for Icelandic affairs, residing in Reykjavík, was made responsible to the Althing . The Act of Union, signed on 1 December 1918 by Icelandic and Danish authorities, recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state (the Kingdom of Iceland), joined with Denmark only as a personal union between the Icelandic and Danish kings. Iceland established its own flag and asked Denmark to represent its foreign affairs and defense interests. The Act would be up for revision in 1940 and could be revoked three years later if agreement was not reached. Union through the Danish king was finally abolished altogether in 1944 during the occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany, when the Althing declared the founding of the Republic of Iceland.

Today, Icelanders celebrate this holiday on a national scale. The celebration traditionally takes the form of a parade through each urban area with brass bands. Riders on Icelandic horses often precede the brass band and flag bearers from the Icelandic scout movement traditionally follow the brass band. After the parade several speeches are held out in the open, including one from a Fjallkonan (woman of the mountains), dressed in Skautbúningur (traditional dress – see photo), who recites a national poem. She represents the fierce spirit of the Icelandic nation and of Icelandic nature: an inheritance from the period of romanticism that reigned when the first steps toward independence were being taken. After speeches and other official business is over, a less formal celebration takes place with musicians and dancing, lots of candy for the children, and helium balloons escaping their owners and flying to the sky. It is also traditional to expect rain on this day.

Icelandic cuisine is heavily dominated by fish and lamb (a favorite traditional festive dish is a whole or halved lamb’s head served on a platter with mashed root vegetables).  If you are not a half sheep head sort of person (I am, as it happens), here’s a simple, but delicious, Icelandic fish chowder.  You can use half and half instead of milk if you want a richer broth.  Personally I prefer fresh ground black pepper when I am eating this alone but white pepper is a bit more visually appealing.

Plokkfiskur

Ingredients:

1 1/4lbs (.7 k) cod, halibut or haddock
1 1/4lb (.7 k) potatoes, boiled and peeled
1 white onion
12 oz (3.5 dl) whole milk
2 oz (56 g) butter
3 tbsp (22 g) flour
salt and white pepper
snipped chives for garnish

Instructions:

Skin, bone,  break  the fish into flakes.

Dice the potatoes  and finely chop the onion.

Slowly heat the milk in a saucepan almost to the boiling point. Do NOT let it boil. Remove from the heat.

In a medium to large sized non-stick saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the onion over medium heat until just soft. Do not let it to brown.

Sprinkle flour over the onion, stir well and cook for 1-2 minutes. Do not let the flour brown.

Gradually add the warmed milk. Add a small amount at first and whisk vigorously. Keep adding more milk slowly stirring continuously. Simmer for 3-4 min, stirring often.

Add the flaked fish, stirring briskly so that the flakes are well broken up.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the potatoes and stir gently until they are heated through.

Serve very hot with dark rye bread and butter.

Serves 4