Iceland likely doesn’t rise to the top of your list when considering possibilities for Christmas and New Years. It’s winter. It’s cold and often plagued with winds and blizzards during its deep winter months. And it only has about four hours of daylight that feels more like early twilight that time of year. And yet, it’s precisely those conditions as well as its exuberant, unique and quirky holiday traditions based on Icelandic folklore that make the winter holidays in Iceland an unforgettable holiday experience.
Dateline: Saga Museum. Reykjavik, Iceland. December 25, 2016
The weather outside was a howling blizzard. To escape I ducked into the Saga Museum, one of the only tourist attractions open Christmas Day in all of Iceland. Apologizing to the two young women working the counter who assured me they were getting twice their normal wage for working the holiday, I took the proffered English interpretive headphones and stepped inside the darkened museum to the first stop on the tour.
Vinland the display’s sign said. Vinland?? That’s a road, church, school and housing development where I live in Poulsbo, Washington, USA. What’s the name doing in an obscure museum in Reykjavik? And thus began a lesson about the intersection of my community and Icelandic sagas. I should have known it was connected to Vikings whose ongoing presence in my life has been described in a past post.
The pleasant English voice on my headset explained that Vinland was the subject of ancient Norse sagas, oral stories that captured the family history and feuds, migrations and voyages and feats of Norse men and women. Many of the sagas can be found on the Icelandic Saga Database. The oral stories were transcribed into written form some 250 years later. The journey, to Vinland is told in the great Icelandic sagas Eric the Red and Saga of Greenland.
Those two sagas detail the heroism of Leif the Lucky, son of Eric the Red who sailed an expeditionary force in 1000 AD to what is now North America. One of the men in his party, Tykir the Southerner, a German slave captured by the Vikings, became separated from the group. When he returned he was clearly drunk and was clutching bunches of grapes. The newly discovered land was named Vinland; vin meaning wine or vine.
In 1960 archaeological evidence was found in Newfoundland that proved the Icelandic saga about the voyage of Leif the Lucky. A recreated Norse longhouse has been built on the site commemorating the landing of Vikings in North America. Additional evidence suggests the explorers also spent some time in New Brunswick and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Still, how did the name migrate its way to my community? There’s scant information at the local historical society where I went upon my return. Vinland was first settled in 1888 by L. Halvorson. That’s it.
I went to Iceland, stumbled upon a familiar geographic name from home and discovered its connection to an Icelandic saga but have no idea how Leif the Lucky’s expedition, a Canadian landing and wine became the namesake for a settlement cum church/school/housing development/road in my community. A saga in and of itself.
Iceland isn’t the first destination that comes to mind as a place to spend Christmas and New Years. Yes, its THE place to visit now, but normal people venture there in the high season of summer and fall when you can circumnavigate the nation on the Ring Road. When all roads are passable, the temperature is pleasant and everything is open. On the downside, the airfare is more expensive, the accommodations aren’t cheap and the island nation is over run with tourists.
We’re going in the dead of winter when the temperature hovers at freezing and there’s only six hours of daylight. When its the low season and many of the rural museums and sights are closed. We’re going then because Iceland has quaint Christmas traditions and one of the world’s best New Years Eve fireworks shows, all research subjects for future travel articles I’m writing.
Of our ten days in the country, half will be spent Reykjavik and half will be spent seeing the sights outside the capital. For part of the trip, we needed a 4 wheel drive, budget accommodations for four outside of Reykjavik and some idea what’s open in the off season. For that I turned to a surprising and very helpful resource – Hostelling International Iceland.
Their website is filled with information including a country map of all the hostels, detailed information and links for each one, a comprehensive downloadable booklet, suggested trip itineraries and the offer to make all of your hostel and vehicle rental reservations. As I’ve been researching their possibilities, they’ve been responding within 24 hours to my various questions. How far between the hostels that are open that time of year? It’s on their website. What’s their advice about driving from Hostel A to Hostel B a distance away? They reminded me there’s limited daylight and suggested there would not be much open on that road that time of year. Do the hostels have a private room (for me) and dorm room for the three young adults who are part of my intrepid band of fellow travelers? Yes! What’s their recommendation about a travel guide? Their downloadable itineraries provide detailed information and they give you a travel CD as part of their service that explains the sights. What are the hidden fees? There aren’t any. They provide the reservation service for no fee and the vehicle pick up and drop off has no extra fees because some of our group is staying at their Reykjavik hostel.
We leave in two months. I’m looking forward to finally seeing the fabled northern lights, Elf School (more on that later), rural hostel living, hip Reykjavik, a glacier tour and the quaint Icelandic tradition of gifting books on Christmas Eve!