The history of Iceland's midwinter celebrations
Read about the history of the old winter months Þorri and Góa and their relation to Men's Day and Women's Day.
To learn more, check out our post on the traditional foods enjoyed during Þorrablót feasts.
The old winter calendar
Due to its global position, Iceland experiences great transitions in weather through the seasons and alternates dramatically between darkness and daylight. We reached peak darkness a month back, on December 21 at the winter solstice, and now the sun is slowly clawing its way further up to the heavens, day by day.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the island’s colorful seasons have colored the culture and folklore of its inhabitants. This includes the months of the calendar, arriving as they do systematically year after year, in parallel with the frost and darkness of winter and the warmth and green grass of summer.
The month of Þorri is the only remnant of the old Icelandic calendar whose name still resonates with modern Icelanders. In the old calendar, Þorri begins in the latter part of the period we now call January. The word has an unclear origin, but in tales from medieval times, Þorri is portrayed as a personification of winter: a mighty and powerful man, perhaps a king or chieftain, of hard and merciless character. Medieval sources also speak of þorrablót, with the word blót connoting a sacrificial and communal event.
A celebration of culture and countryside
There are stories of special celebrations at the beginning of Þorri as far back as the 18th century, although we don’t know for certain what these festivities involved. We do know that communal celebrations of poetry, hearty food and drink, under the name of þorrablót, became popular in the late 19th century, when romantic national sentiment was at its peak and provoked interest in those things that were perceived to be ancient and peculiar to Icelandic culture.
Another þorrablót revival of sorts happened in Reykjavík in the early to mid-20th century, when the population of Iceland’s rapidly growing capital started to long for the culture of the countryside where they had grown up, including its traditional food culture. In the 1950s, an enterprising restaurateur came up with the idea of drawing in customers for the low season of January to April, by offering what was presented as traditional Icelandic food, calling it þorramatur (i.e. food of Þorri) in reference to the old calendar. The menu included delicacies such as cured rolls of lamb flank and boiled sheep heads. The idea caught on in a major way and formed the basis for the modern celebration of þorrablót.
If you happen to be in Iceland in the period from January 20 – February 18 of 2023, look out for a þorrablót buffet and feast on such dishes as cured ram testicles, fermented shark and liver sausage to your heart’s content!
Men’s Day and Women’s Day
The month of Þorri is bookmarked by two special days of celebration: Bóndadagur, or Men’s Day, occurring on the first day of the month, and Konudagur, or Women’s Day, which marks the beginning of the following month of the old winter calendar: Góa (this year, it will be on February 19). Just like the month of Þorri was taken as the personification of winter, Góa has her own share of poetic characteristics. She has been given a variety of traits by different poets: she’s well-dressed and extremely tall, she takes care of the farm’s larder, she’s as old as Icelandic settlement, on occasions she’s even the mainspring of volcanic eruptions.
On both Men’s and Women’s Day, flowers are the main token of affection presented to the partner whose day of celebration has arrived, but general pampering and spoiling is also encouraged. The custom of giving flowers is not a particularly old one, it only goes back a few decades. This is perhaps not surprising. Although generously endowed with mountain ranges, glaciers and black sands, Icelandic nature isn’t exactly suited for growing bouquet-flowers, so greenhouses and modern imports are needed for a custom like this to take hold. The 20th century has made a mark on these celebrations, just like endless other facets of life. Few would now eat þorramatur outside the þorrablót season.
And so, these old winter celebrations survive to this day in Icelandic culture, although in a somewhat altered form. The enduring appeal of seasonal celebrations such as these no doubt comes largely from their role in breaking up the monotony of everyday existence, but they may originally also have served as landmarks on the path to a warmer and brighter future. A reminder that spring and summer were coming eventually, that one more post had been passed on the winter season’s long road of darkness, leading up to better times. The history of Þorri and Góa can remind us modern people of what life used to be like in Iceland. And what food used to be like.
Text: Óskar Völundarson
Source: Árni Björnsson, Saga daganna (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1993). Chapters “Þorri” (pp. 433-481) and “Góa” (pp. 496-518).