About This Festival
You probably won’t be able to pronounce it’s name, Þjóðhátíð (it means “national holiday”), but if you cast your expectations of this wild festival away, gear up in day-glo fishermans rubber and stock-up on enough booze to drink the cold away—you just might have the time of your life. This is the real deal, the Valhalla of music meet cultural festivals.
The Origins of a Bender
Verslunarmannahelgi is the name of the annual summertime shopkeeper’s holiday. The first Þjóhátíð was held in 1874 making this Iceland’s oldest festival, celebrating the anniversary of 1,000 years of settlement of this frozen, northern outpost. As Iceland is prone to wild weather and isolated communities, the national holiday on the Westman Island grew into a celebration of epic proportions as the islanders often couldn’t join the mainland celebrations due to dangerous seas. The combination of geographic isolation, friendly islanders, and a wild history make this Iceland’s most fascinating festival.
A Festival That Just Might Survive the Zombie Apocalypse
Your adventure starts when you begin your journey to the Vestmannaeyjar or the Westman Islands. This beautiful island chain has a particularly volatile history when they were formed a mere 10,000 years ago, a baby in geologic terms. The youngest island, Surtsey, didn't appear until 1963, making it a darling of NASA scientists examining how life colonizes virgin islands.
The most famous earth-moving event occurred on Heimaey during the 1973 eruption of the Eldfell volcano, where some residents battled the lava with seawater to save the harbor from the middle of winter until July when the eruption was finished. While the eruption and lava moved slowly enough to spare most lives, it was a spectacular show that has been written into the very fabric of this festival’s epic finale.
A camping festival in Iceland is no ordinary undertaking. Even though it’s held around the height of summer when you can count on lots of light, sunshine and warmth will most likely be in short supply. So goes the saying in Iceland “Don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes."
So what should you bring to this Viking Party Valhalla? It’s all about staying warm. Follow the local’s lead. Besides stocking up on booze (liquor stores close as early as 4pm), bring a good tent and stake it down. Even then your tent might still blow away. In that case, make sure you dress like the locals. An Icelandic wool sweater and rubber fisherman’s boots and suit will protect you from the elements, even if your tent is on its windy way to Europe.
Friday Night Bonfire: In addition to the musical offerings, much of which resembles “Icelandic Country & Western,” the highlight of Friday night is a bonfire that is so big it’s rumored you can roast marshmallows from Valhalla. Well we can’t confirm that, but it’s pretty damned big.
Saturday Night Fireworks: As the party gets into full swing music, DJs and dancing vibrate through the (short) night until early morning. When it’s dark enough, the evening's highlight is a fireworks show only outdone by Reykjavik's New Year’s pyrotechnics display.
Sunday Night Eruption and Sing Along Finale: Much like a campfire sing-a-long of your favorite childhood songs, Icelandic ballads are sung by everyone (they know them by heart). But you can fake it until you make it and at least hum along to the tunes. The festival finale comes when thousands of torch wielding bearers gather round the rim of the volcano to recreate Eldfell’s famous lava eruption. It’s a sight to behold and a fine way to end this one-of-a-kind festival.