A short history of summer in Iceland

Posted in:Department of Weather-Related Holidays & People
Trausti Jónsson, professional weatherman and amateur historian
Image: Karólína

People might think celebrating summer in April is a sign of irrational optimism. But as Trausti Jónsson, professional meteorologist and amateur historian explains, Sumardagurinn fyrsti, literally “the first day of summer”, has a deeper history and meaning.

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Trausti Jónsson, meteorologist, amateur historian and former head of research at the Icelandic Met Office, has a keener interest in calendar history than a lot of his colleagues.

The First Day of Summer (celebrated in Iceland on 22 April this year) may be maligned as false advertising by 21st-century cynics, but Trausti will set you straight. This day, one of the most significant of an ancient Icelandic calendar that is almost as old as the Settlement, almost always falls during the week that temperatures make the welcome shift from below average to above average.

The calendar

The ancient Icelandic calendar, known simply as misseratal or “half-year calendar”, was actually more accurate than the Julian calendar, which was adopted by Icelanders in the 11th century, says Trausti.

Rather than being based on months, it was divided into 52 different weeks and two seasons, summer and winter.  There were also different months, the most well-known of which today is Þorri (during which time Icelanders of all ages celebrate at Þorrablót parties).

The First Day of Summer fell on the first day of the month of Harpa, which was dedicated to the maiden.  This time, explains Trausti, was “critical” as hay supplies were usually depleted and livestock needed to move outdoors.

“They needed to merge the traditional holidays with the Christian ones like Easter very well,” he adds.

It was difficult for people to keep track of the festivals and high days of the various calendars. To help the population in a pre-technology (heck, a pre-publishing) age, the fingrarím, literally “finger rhyme” method was applied to allow people to remember vital dates by counting using the fingers and knuckles on their hands.

The holiday

“The First Day of Summer is a vestige of the traditional calendar,” explains Trausti. Using the traditional Gregorian calendar, the holiday falls on the second Thursday after 11 April, which is the Saint’s day of Pope Leo I. “Many say it is the first Thursday after the 18th,” notes Trausti sternly, “but that is technically inaccurate.”

Traditionally gifts are exchanged on the First Day of Summer. In the past, these gifts were more significant than those distributed at Christmas, but modern practice usually has parents buying their little ones a happy gift.

In Reykjavík, a parade processes through the city centre, cheered on enthusiastic children and their parents. Typically, the weather is anything but summer-like.

The weather

“Of course in a sense, the winter alone is a season here,” says Trausti. “But actually, twice a year the temperature crosses the mean, and if you look at a 30-year average, that nearly always happens near the First Day of Summer and the First Day of Winter. Clearly the originators of the old Icelandic calendar knew this. They could have switched seasons at the equinox but they did not.”

There is more meteorological evidence that makes this day a legitimate time for a first day of summer.

“The winter circulation that dominates the winter breaks down at this time every year. There is a transition in the winter and summer circulation in the upper atmosphere and that affects storm tracks and storm frequency.

While there is no one place better than another to celebrate this ancient day, according to Trausti “Mýrdalur and Eyjafjöll are favourite spots in the sense that that is where the spring arrives first.”

As to what this day will bring in 2010, Trausti makes no predictions. “It’s still far too early to predict anything.”

Eliza Reid, a staff writer born in a country where summer doesn’t start nearly yet, interviewed Trausti Jónsson at the Icelandic Met Office in March. The photos were taken by Karólína on 16 April, just in time for summer.

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