Winter in Iceland

View from Borgarnes in winter. Photo by Michael Ridpath author of the Magnus Iceland Mysteries

The higher the latitude, the greater the difference between summer and winter. Iceland is only just below the Arctic Circle, so in midwinter it is dark nearly all the time. Daylight is only a few hours. In practice dawn turns into dusk at lunchtime. 

As you can imagine, this has a depressing effect on locals. They go to work in the dark; they come home in the dark. It was even worse in the old days when most Icelanders lived on isolated farms. They essentially stayed indoors all winter in their living quarters above the animals whose heat kept them warm. They knitted, they read, they milked the cow, they moved hay about. They hibernated.

Because of its proximity to the Arctic Circle, in theory, the sun is visible for a short period every day in Iceland, even at midwinter. But that is not true for the town of Ísafjördur in the West Fjords, which is wedged between high mountains. There they last see the sun on 16 November and it returns on 25 January. They have sólarkaffi - coffee and pancakes - to celebrate on the 25th.

But there are many good things about Iceland in winter. Icelandic houses are nothing much to look at from the outside, but they are cosy on the inside: small, warm, often lit with candles. Iceland can look beautiful under snow, especially if the sun manages to peek out between or below the clouds. 

In my opinion, the best time to visit a hot pot at an outdoor swimming pool or the world-famous Blue Lagoon is in winter, where your body is warm, your nose is cold, and steam billows up from the water through which you catch glimpses of snow-covered rock. Admittedly, you have to endure the bracing dash over the few short yards from changing room to pool.

Then there are the Northern Lights. This phenomenon is present in winter and summer, but you can only see them when it is dark, so winter is much the better season than summer. And you need clear skies, which in Iceland requires optimism and good luck. The lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are the result of solar wind disturbing the magnetosphere and altering the trajectories of charged particles in the upper atmosphere causing them to emit light.

The Northern Lights come in many different forms: at their weakest they are thin trails of white; at their strongest they take the form of shimmering curtains of green, yellow and red, which drape the whole night sky. They don’t perform every night - their strength varies. It’s not the case that they are strongest near the North Pole; in fact, there is a band that surrounds the earth close to the Arctic Circle where they are at maximum strength, and the centre of this band passes right over Iceland, which suggests the country is a good place to see them. If it isn’t cloudy.

There have been magnificent pictures taken of the Northern Lights, but not by me. You need to be clever with a camera. Yet no camera can do the aurora justice. You need to be standing underneath the black of the night sky stretching from horizon to horizon all around you. Then the lights play, shifting, shimmering, disappearing and reappearing, first in one part of the sky and then another. It’s all about swivelling your neck and dropping your jaw.

There are a number of festivals to relieve the tedium of the long night-days. Christmas is as big a deal in Iceland as everywhere else. The mischievous ‘Yule lads’ come in the days before Christmas to place gifts in children’s shoes. 

Like much of Northern Europe, Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day. There is a tradition of everyone giving each other books; I thoroughly approve of this. Carols are sung, board games are played, the Christmas tree glimmers. A traditional Christmas Eve dinner might be thick rice soup mixed with cinnamon and sugar, dark ptarmigan with red cabbage, and frothy pineapple mousse. There is a lot of hangikjöt around at this time of year, delicious smoked lamb.

Then, a few days later, comes New Year’s Eve. The entire nation watches a satirical comedy show on TV and then emerges to launch their elaborate arsenals of fireworks at each other. 

In January or February, the Icelanders celebrate thorrablót, a feast of all the traditional foods: putrefied shark, ram’s testicles, congealed sheep’s blood wrapped in a ram’s stomach and boiled sheep’s head, all washed down with ‘black death’. Yum yum. Eventually, Icelanders display their elevated sense of irony with ‘the first day of summer’, which takes place in a snowstorm some time in April.

Whale Fjord by Michael Ridpath cover

Whale Fjord is out in February! It's the next Magnus novel set in Iceland. Two skeletons dating from Britain's occupation of Iceland in 1940 are discovered on the shores of Whale Fjord. Magnus investigates. More details soon.

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