New Year's Eve the Icelandic Way
Like most countries around the globe, Icelanders put on a fireworks show at the end of the year. As midnight approaches on New Year’s Eve, the spectacular show begins to say goodbye to the old year and celebrate the new one.
The big difference
Although firework shows are almost universal on New Year’s Eve, there is one significant difference between the show in Iceland and that of other countries. As most countries organize their fireworks show at a particular spot, like Times Square in New York or on the skyline around Big Ben in London, the people of Iceland put on an entirely disorganized mega event. In most countries and cities, officials organize the show in accordance with regulations and permissions, but in Iceland, fireworks regulations are temporarily abolished, so every member of the whole country, from age 5 to 95, can participate in putting on their own little fireworks display.
This can range from holding a sparkler with a happy smile to shooting up dozens of large fireworks, to multi-shot fireworks cakes and holding giant torches that can turn night into a day in the whole neighborhood. No surprise that the number of participants in shooting-up fireworks exceeds one hundred thousand. Sometimes people are so enterprising and enthusiastic that their entire street turns into a war zone like situation. And the scene is spectacular.
Tradition that started more than a century ago
Icelanders have always liked fireworks. It might be related to the fact that the Icelandic winter nights are long and dark, particularly around New Year’s Eve. Anything that lightens up people’s lives and brings some light to the dark sky is appreciated.
For more than a century, Icelanders have flocked out in towns and villages, particularly in Reykjavík, at New Year’s Eve, to participate in the firework celebrations. Over the years and decades, the tradition changed from only a few wealthier members of society shooting up fireworks for themselves and others to enjoy, to the full participation of the nation. Today, the sky above Reykjavík and all the neighboring towns light up for up to a couple of hours. The city turns into a grand street party with bonfires in every neighborhood and endless blasts in the air. You have to be there to believe the scale of the show.
Shooting fireworks to heal a nation
Even when the Icelandic economy collapsed in 2008, everyone found money to spend on fireworks at the year’s end. At least the show had to be continued. Of course, the whole nation was in shock as the economic boom turned on its head with millions of dollars, euros, kronur, and investments down the drain. But it did not prevent people from shooting millions up in the air. The crash naturally produced great anger and hatred towards those responsible. The main culprits being politicians, much-celebrated (during the boom years) bankers (some whom are currently behind bars) and entrepreneurs. At that time, the fireworks tradition had reached its highest point and the increase from one New Years Eve to the next was measured in hundreds of tons.
Because of our love for Iceland’s history, a lot of the fireworks, bombs, firework cakes and torches for sale were named after our heroes from the Sagas: Njáll, Gunnar, Grettir the Strong, and Egill Skallagrímsson. But during the economic crash, much of the fireworks offered to the public were named after the politicians and crazy business men and women who played key roles in Iceland’s financial crash with their foolishness and greed. At the year’s end, Icelanders could shoot their namesakes into to the sky and blow them up symbolically. One could argue that it was quite a healing experience for many. Fortunately, Icelanders are a peaceful nation and doing this symbolically and happily was enough to dampen the anger.
Fireworks for a good cause
The fireworks show in Iceland is also related in a positive way to one of our most appreciated and respected institutions, the Icelandic Search and Rescue Teams. In the fifties and the sixties, Icelanders started to travel around the country, into the Highland and onto mountains and glaciers for relaxation and recreation. But quickly everyone realized the potential danger that was attached to such travel. This development, in addition to frequent ship losses around the shore and other catastrophic incidents, accidents and disasters, led to the formation of the Icelandic Search and Rescue teams in most towns and villages. Within a few years, these teams became an important organization in Iceland. From the beginning, the squads have been non-profit and voluntary organizations and as such lack any stable funding. So, the teams around the country turned this interest in fireworks to their advantage and started to import and sell fireworks to the public about half a century ago.
As the teams and their organization is one of the most liked and appreciated institutions in Icelandic society, Icelanders have always been eager to purchase their fireworks and secure their funding. Today, the fireworks show is thus also an important funding and economic factor in upholding and increasing the security of everyone traveling in Iceland.
Join the party
Icelanders spend around 3.5 to 4.0 million dollars for fireworks on New Year’s Eve allowing them to shoot, burn and blow up about 600 tons of fireworks, fireworks cakes, torches and all kinds of different explosives during the celebration. To stand on a hill in Reykjavik, from where you can see the sky of the whole city and neighboring towns and villages bursting with light, seems unreal. You can even see the show afar, from Keflavik town or Akranes town, both more than a 40-kilometers drive away.
In recent years, people have put on New Year’s Eve parties around Reykjavik where the party by Hallgrímskirkja church is the most popular. Also, the area around Harpa Concert Hall is well-known for such parties. But of all the places in Reykjavík, Perlan is probably the best place to view this fantastic New Year’s Eve spectacle.
Don’t miss the show. Book your cheap flight to Reykjavik for New Year’s Eve and party with us.
Text and photos: Einar Páll Svavarsson
Einar Páll Svavarsson is a political scientist turned photographer and writer with decades of interest and experience traveling in Iceland. Einar is the owner and creator of one of the largest information websites about Iceland—Hit Iceland. For more see hiticeland.com.