Friday, December 30, 2022

Icelandic New Year

Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Iceland
photo © copyright

A Story in LitHub last week was titled "Chocolate, Books, and More Books: Could America Even Handle Iceland's Traditional Christmas 'Book Flood'?" (Hinds). 

It describes how families and friends in "the most literate country in the world, with the highest number of published authors" exchange books every Christmas Eve, reading together around the fireplace to celebrate the holidays. The story recounts a "most dearly loved tradition" of a flood of publications annually released in the weeks leading up to Christmasalso stimulating author visits to workplaces for readings, bookshop festivities, or finding a reading nook at a family gathering, in addition to the evenings reading at home late into the night, fueled by hot chocolate.

Personally, this story revived memory of a New Year's celebration spent in Iceland. But how this came about is another story. In the late fall one year, when visiting friends in Arizona, an email arrived from another friend saying, " me crazy, but I'd really like to see the northern lights..." along with an invitation to join a group traveling to Iceland to welcome the New Year. Following soon was an additional emailjust a photo of folks sitting half-immersed in the geothermal Blue Lagoon on the Reykjavik Peninsula, with glasses raised in saluteresulting in swift acceptance of the invitation. 

The midwinter adventure commenced with a late night arrival at the airport near Reykjavik. Knowledge of my Aussie-origins, and consequent experience driving on the "correct" side of the road, automatically meant designation to drive the rental vehicleand fortunately another member of the group swiftly self-identified as navigator. Our first collaboration though was to retrieve the 8-seater vehicle from the far side of a deserted, unlit carparkin the pitch-black of true darknessto skate in our boots 100 yards / 90 meters or so, across the sheet of ice covering the carpark, helping each other to remain upright as we went.

Moving on from this uncertain start, the land of the midnight sun [during summer anyway] offered delight in winter too. Each morning, after breakfast in the dark, we coincided our arrival at a destination for sunrise around 11 am, to see a sight or two. Then, back on the road by sunset, around 3 pm, returning to our accommodations in time for drinks before dinner.

The good company of the group, coupled with the warmth of Icelanders, the stunning volcanic landscape and rushing streams, the warm springs and geysers, the expansion bridge across the separating tectonic plates, a welcome embellishment of the Sagas and history of Iceland, and a very different architecture and housing combined as an enjoyable mix of experiences–with the timelessly haunting novel, Independent People by Halldór Laxness, capturing the strength of a unique people, and some character of the nation.

The New Year's Eve celebrations were also enjoyable, with community bonfires and apparently endless fireworks in view in every direction from the hilltop location of a revolving restaurant atop The Saga Museum (apart from a 30 minute break just before midnight, when Icelanders nationwide stopped for an iconic TV show).

While the combination of smoke from the large-scale fireworks on New Year's Eve and cloud-filled skies on other evenings nullified any viewing of northern lights, this whole adventure remains among the most memorable of ways to welcome the fresh start to a calendar.

With a flood of goodwill as strong as this memory brings, may your 2023 travel as well!


Halldór Laxness (1946), Independent People, New York: Vintage

Jess deCourcy Hinds (2022), "Chocolate, Books, and More Books: Could America Even Handle Iceland's Traditional Christmas 'Book Flood'?" LitHub, December 23,