True fans of Games of Thrones know that many scenes were shot in locations in Iceland during the making of this series. Probably everyone agrees that Iceland’s landscape is breathtaking and the perfect place to experience the atmosphere described in the books. It’s no wonder then that Iceland has been chosen to film so many…
Have you ever heard of Icelandic Ash Wednesday? The day when children dress up, go store to store, sing for candy and make ash bags to put on the back of unsuspecting “victims”? It’s part of a 3-day celebration that starts today. Ash Wednesday is similar to Icelandic Halloween, where the tradition is not about going door to door but going to businesses and stores for candy. Monday is Bolludagur in Iceland when everyone eats the iconic creamy puffs and children jokingly spank adults with wands! We eat salty meat and pea soup between those two days until we “explode” on Explosion Day.
These days are called “Föstuinngangur” and they are known for overeating. Once Wednesday is over a seven-week fast start. However, the fast is not something many Icelanders partake in, other than those faithful to their religions. The fastelavn or fast is to commemorate the time Jesus spent in the desert, the 40 days after his baptism in the Jordan River. The date of these celebrations changes constantly because they are connected to Easter. “Langafasta” is a Carnival tradition celebrated in Scandinavia. Fastelavn connects to the Roman Catholic practice of Carnival in the days following Lent. Today, most Icelanders celebrate these days. However, the more Catholic practices have been a thing of the past. It’s mostly a celebration of the food, the culture, and family.
Bun Day 2022 – Bolludagur 2022
Bolludagur is the start of the “föstuinngangur” celebrated this year on February 28th. It loosely translates to fasting entrance, meaning the three days before Lent. It was common to have plenty of meat two days before Lent in the Catholic tradition. But in the 19th century, the episcopal sagas mentioned “fasting with milk foods” during Lent. It is believed this has evolved into the fabled day of this pastry.
It means that people fasted on various delicacies, such as the Danes, which refer to wheat buns mixed with milk and butter to eat during Lent. Other Nordic countries have tied this day to the Tuesday of the beginning of fasting. Instead, Icelanders have used the Monday to feast on “bollur” not to confuse it with Explosion Day.
Danish and Norwegian bakers settling here in Iceland are likely to have brought the tradition in the 19th century. Local bakers produce one million buns each year filled with cream or jam. The classic version is always chocolate or a glaze topped on the buns. But in today’s standards, many bakeries try to add different elements to the buns to make them more unique. Icelanders eat a lot of buns on this day, either bought or homemade.
Modern Bolludagur Traditions
In the middle of the 20th century, the traditions took an Icelandic form. Children will decorate sticks to create what we call “bolludagsvöndur” (creamy bun-day wand) to spank grown-ups while chanting “Bolla, Bolla, Bolla!”. The spanker will then be rewarded with a bun. To this day, the spankings haven’t been as frequent, but schools and kindergartens still maintain the spanking tradition. The custom originates from the Danes in the protestant areas in North Germany and then to Iceland with Danish merchants during the 19th century. Initially, the spankings wouldn’t be valid unless the spanker was fully dressed and the so-called victim undressed. So children would wake up before their parents to give them a Bolludags surprise.
People used to dress up on Bolludagur and used the wand on Ash Wednesday, but at some point, they switched it up and started dressing up on Ash Wednesday only to use the stick on Bolludagur. Growing up, I’ve never liked the bollur; growing older, I’ve acquired a taste for the ones with a caramel glaze. On the other hand, my parents love this day, I’d say my parents and siblings all together eat around 100-150 creamy buns, not all in one day, but since we do have leftovers afterward, it can be an excellent snack throughout the day.
in my family, my mum is the one in charge of making these delicious pastries. And she shared her recipe with us:
These are the ingredients you need.
- 130 gr butter
- 120 gr flour
- 50 ml of water
- 4 eggs or 3 big eggs
- half a teaspoon salt
- 1 spoon of sugar
Now for the baking method.
- Before you start making the dough, heat your oven to 200°C.
- Put the butter, water, sugar together in a pot and let it simmer. Have it melt together for 2 – 3 minutes before adding the flour.
- Add the flour, mix together, and then cool for 5 minutes.
- Once the dough is cool, add the eggs together one by one, beat them into the dough. (You can use a mixer for this.)
- Transfer the dough into a pastry bag and make decent palm-sized circles on a tray with baking paper.
- Bake it for 15-20 minutes, do not open the oven for the first 15 minutes since the bollur can fall apart.
- Then you can add whatever topping you’d like! Cream & chocolate glaze is the classic Icelandic Bolla, but nothing is off-limits! Add whatever you’d like.
Explosion Day 2022 – Sprengidagur 2022
“Sprengidagur” or Explosion Day or Icelandic Mardi Gras is the last day before Lent starts. During this day, people eat so much that they metaphorically “explode”. The typical meal is salted lamb or horse and soup made of yellow split peas with vegetables and bits of bacon. Explosion Day 2022 is on March 1st.
The oldest source about the Icelandic tradition is in the Icelandic-Latin dictionary of Jóns Ólafssonar Grunnvíkings from around 1735. He wrote that “Explosion night” means the night of explosions; it is the night of a glorious feast with all kinds of side dishes. Hung meat was traditionally the main feast for the longest time, as salt was scarce throughout the 19th century. There are no sources of people eating salted meat and beans on Explosion Day, but that tradition is common today. It has little to do with religion and more with overindulging in traditional foods.
This day is called Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day in the United Kingdom. Being more similar to Bolludagur than Sprengidagur, the pancake is the pastry in question. No matter what, during Explosion Day, many restaurants and cafés will serve this as their dish of the day, so you won’t be missing out if you happen to be in Iceland.
I’m not the biggest fan of this entree; my mom usually uses horse meat instead of lamb, but I think the salty taste is too much. But I enjoy soups a lot, and there’s a funny story around that. In Iceland, confirmation happens the year you turn 14, and it’s a symbol of confirming your beliefs. The event is celebrated with a big party where friends and families eat together. At my confirmation, I had three types of soups enough to feed 100 people, instead of having cakes. I see it more of a bean-porridge, but I enjoy it nonetheless! I highly recommend you to try it out, on your next visit to Iceland. We’ve had this for dinner now and again, but as tradition, it’s mandatory on Explosion Day, as most places with a cafeteria have it.
The Icelandic Beer Festival
March 1st is also Beer Day in Iceland and the annual beer festival. Celebrating the legalization of beer after 74 years of being forbidden when strong liquor was not. But that is a subject for another time. It is not often that Explosion Day is celebrated on the same day with Beer Day; I would suggest this is the best time to have a beer with your salty meat!
The official name of the event is The Annual Icelandic Beer Festival. It’s a four-day festival, in which you can taste many varieties of beer from all over the globe! Or if you want to try another cool experience (pun intended!), check out the Magic Ice Bar, available throughout the year.
Ash Wednesday 2022 – Öskudagur 2022
In Iceland, Ash Wednesday traditions have changed considerably. It was originally a Catholic holiday for people to repent and right past wrongs and get pastors to mark their foreheads with ash during the mass. Ash Wednesday 2022 is on March 2nd this year.
The ash is a holy cleanser, and people would bring back ashes to bless their homes; this would later evolve into the bag of ashes, which is now known as “Öskupoki”. The Ash Bag is often used to confess your love to someone. Kids would place the Ash Bag behind the back of someone’s t-shirt and have a love letter; sometimes, the person can add even small pebbles. It’s all up to the creativity of whoever has an Ash Bag what they can put in it.
Most Icelanders do not celebrate Halloween, Ash Wednesday 2022 ( Öskudagur ) is the Icelandic equivalent, but some different traditions are in place. The name originates from Icelandic scripts during the 14th century; some say it dates even further. Originally, Ash Wednesday was on a Monday; kids would get that day off school to attend parades in costumes and play beat the cat of the barrel. Those traditions fell out of most places before the 20th century, but Akureyri – the second largest city in Iceland – continued it where it has been gradually spreading once again. The Icelandic weather has prevented outdoor celebrations and parades; the entertainment remains within the walls of the people’s homes nevertheless.
Cat in the barrel is an old tradition dating back to the 1500s, inspired by the pinata most likely. Icelandic schools partake in the game, but they don’t use the barrel anymore. Instead of a cardboard box, kids would have a broom shaft to beat it, and the candy would fall down. The game continues until the barrel is destroyed; in Denmark, whoever knocks down the bottom of the barrel will become the queen of cats, and when someone knockdowns the last piece of the barrel, they become the king of the cats.
Ash Wednesday Costumes
Costumes for Ash Wednesday can be hand-made to store-bought. I remember a kid that I went to school with always had a homemade costume as his mother was the textile teacher of the school. He’d go as a pirate, prisoner, and I vividly remember his elephant costume: his trunk kept falling off, which the other kids would make fun of. Nonetheless, his costumes would always place him high in the costume competition of the school.
The average costume-goer has a store-bought costume from a supermarket or a costume shop in Reykjavík. I recall my costumes always being store-bought, or if I got creative enough, I’d make a costume out of clothing I had. Once as an Army soldier, I dressed in my camouflage clothes with some snow boots, convincing enough to enter the costume competition.
Children still go to school on this day. It’s more of a leisure day, though, and they watch a movie, play games, or bring toys to school. A specific tradition only linked to Iceland is the “Öskupoki”. It’s a small bag, usually hand-made so that children would hang it on the back of clothing on adults. The insides of the bags would be small letters or gifts. This tradition is often in schools or kindergartens, but this has gradually been a thing of the past as nowadays kids go to stores or companies to trick or treat. Still, the twist is that there’s singing involved.
Best Bakeries In Iceland
If you’re around the capital area of Reykjavík and you want to try out some of the buns, I highly recommend checking Hérastubbur Bakery. It is a family-run bakery located in Grindavík where they have a variety of pastries, most known for their vegan options.
After you pick up your CampEasy camper, I’d give Sigurjónsbakarí a visit. They’ve got an old-school taste and have lunch options, too. They are the closest to the airport so if you’re on your way to sight-seeing or going back to the Airport, this should be your first or last stop!
The locals of downtown Reykjavík love Deig, a bakery with heavy American influence. Their specialties are doughnuts, bagels & bagel sandwiches. They also have the “poor man’s offer” for 1.100 ISK you can get a filled bagel, a pastry & a drink of your choice, great for the early birds.
If you have walked in downtown Reykjavik, you might have noticed the very colourful Brauð & Co. What makes this place special is their tuna salad, spread on one of their sourdough loaves. It is not something you wanna miss out on. They’ve got six bakeries in the capital area after being in business for six years, that’s a bakery a year!
And lastly, but not the least, Standholt. Yet another family bakery that are in fact proud to be more than just a bakery. They have been working tirelessly to provide the best buns in town. Have a taste and let us know if you agree.
If you’d like to know more about what Icelanders like to eat, I recommend reading our blog about Icelanders’ favorite foods. Or if you are simply curious to try some of the food, just book a Food Tour and let your taste buds do the rest.
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