Letter from Iceland
Do you have any intention of dancing with the elves tonight?
If you happen to be in Iceland, that is a definite option.
Well, at least, a large bonfire and perhaps some actors or dancers posing as elves, are a definite option.
In English, today is Twelfth Night or Epiphany, but in Icelandic, today is called Threttándinn, or “The 13th.” In Iceland, Christmas begins on December 24 and ends on January 6.
This tradition of Christmas lasting 13 days is believed to extend back to the fourth and fifth centuries in Europe, when a new day was thought to begin at 6 p.m.
Hence, Christmas begins in Iceland at 6 p.m. on December 24.
On January 6, the three wise men were celebrated in the fourth and fifth centuries, and it marked the last day of the festivities.
So, today is the last day of Christmas and filled with magic.
It’s best to be on one’s toes today, because if you’re not careful, the elves may take you with them to their world and you may never see humans again — or if you do, you’ll be so damaged that you’ll be either insane or desperately depressed for the rest of your days.
Demons may craze you, ghosts may steal your body, and the cows may make you mad.
But if you’re lucky and well prepared, tonight may be the luckiest night of your live.
You may learn great wisdom from the cows in your barn; the elves may leave you great riches and you may be able to get a demon or two to abide to all your wishes.
And you may see the most beautiful sight any human can see — the elves dancing on a frozen lake.
Today, the last of the Yule Lads leaves to his and his brothers’ cave, and, officially, Christmas is over.
Icelanders don’t drink alcohol on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but most certainly make up for it on New Year’s Eve — the biggest party night of the whole year.
The most distinguishing characteristic of an Icelandic New Year’s Eve is the fireworks. Almost everyone buys fireworks as, on this night, everyone is allowed light them (something that usually requires special permission from the authorities).
And Icelanders make sure they take full advantage of that. Fireworks are lit all night long, reaching the high point at midnight, when the sky lights up for a few minutes as the fire trucks and harboured ships ring their bells and blow their horns to welcome the New Year.
It is certainly the grandest display of fireworks you will ever see.
After midnight, people gather either downtown to go clubbing or to parties where they drink the night away, often until the early hours of the morning.
Understandably, there is usually not much activity in Iceland on New Year’s Day, except perhaps for the younger children who run out to gather the sticks from the fireworks — and there is often fierce competition over who find the most.
Then by today, pretty much everything is back to normal; everyone is back at work and schools have started.
But most families have saved one or two or three fireworks for tonight.
On the evening of the last day of Christmas, families get together, have a nice dinner, light the remainder of their fireworks from New Year’s Eve and bid farewell to Christmas.
And there are many bonfires tonight, at which actors pose as the elf king and the elf queen with their herds of elves.
There are literally dozens of folktales on the magic of tonight; the only other night that comes close in magic is the shortest night of the year, Saint Jon’s Mass, Jónsmessa.
Elves will come out and if you are strong and courageous, you can sit at a crossroad all night, where the elves will come and attempt to seduce you with delicious food and rich gifts.
If you break down and succumb to the temptation, woe becomes you as you are theirs. But if you stay strong and ignore all their seductive offers, when day breaks (which, mind you, is around 11 a.m.) they all disappear and leave all their food and treasures behind for you to use as you please.
In the barns, the cows chat amicably between themselves all night long. Some say they speak much wisdom, but others say they just speak about daily life in the barn.
Whatever the truth, if you listen in, you are in danger of losing your mind permanently. However, some say you will become very wise by doing so, and that you will obtain the powers of seeing the future.
Tonight, demons roam the Earth and the dark powers are strong.
But the most beautiful are the elves, stunning and imminently dangerous — seeing and hearing the elf queen can mean that your days are numbered.
Christmas decorations are taken down immediately after January 6th.
Even though the coming weeks promise only a drab reality (a month will pass before the days get noticeably longer), most Icelanders look ahead with a sense of renewal and confidence. Though still far away, spring is on its way.