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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Guttormsson

New Year's Eve Traditions: Iceland and Scotland

Adulthood always seemed so appealing, yet hopelessly unattainable to childhood me every time New Year's Eve rolled around. What I would have given to wear high heels and lipstick, drink champagne, and watch the countdown specials on TV. I dreamed of how glamorous New Year's Eve would become once I hit my twenties. No more eating popcorn, drinking sprite, and watching cartoons with the other kids in the basement.

When I finally turned 19, I assume I did exciting things on New Year's Eve, but do you think can remember what it was? It's not that I partied so hard I cannot remember. No, it's simply a matter that while social gatherings are enjoyable, those experiences are not always meaningful enough to be remembered.

The memories that do endure are the traditions. Growing up, while I was too young to go to parties, I did follow one tradition every year. And that was to watch the New Year's Eve Canadian political satire show hosted by the Royal Canadian Air Farce. This show would recap the news stories of the year and culminate with a segment known as the turkey canon. A canon would be filled with ridiculous ingredients from whipped cream, to paper shreddings, to turkey stuffing. Then, the canon would be fired at a cardboard cutout of the most notable newsmaker of the year - often a politician. Sadly, this show ended its 46th season back in 2019 and will not be a part of my celebrations tonight.

Since I love learning about folklore and traditions from other cultures, I thought I would share two examples of New Year's Eve activities from Iceland and Scotland.

New Year's Eve in Iceland

I was lucky enough to live in Iceland for two years: one year before the pandemic began and one year while the pandemic was in full swing. During a typical holiday season in Iceland, fireworks go on sale at pop-up shops around the country a week or so before the 31st. This is the only time of the year when you can purchase fireworks in Iceland and the proceeds of the sales go to the volunteer search and rescue teams as their biggest fundraiser of the year.

A typical New Year's Eve in the capital of Reykjavík begins with dinner parties with family and friends as a chance to catch up with neighbours. Beginning around 6pm, fireworks start to be lit. Since anyone can purchase them, the bursts of light in the sky and the spontaneous bangs can happen anywhere around you and can be a bit alarming if you're not expecting it. While many fireworks do go off between 6pm and 11pm, but the whole city goes quiet at 11pm as Icelanders head inside to watch the TV. What are they watching? A program called Áramótaskaup - a sketch comedy show highlighting the events of the past year. Something similar to Canada's Royal Canadian Air Farce, except that almost all Icelanders tune into this show.

When the program ends, the real fireworks displays begin. The professional shows in each community begin around midnight and the individuals set their stockpiles of fireworks off in earnest. The sound is deafening and it can feel dangerous to walk the streets as random bangs explode for yards, parks, even the middle of streets. And they last until 6am - a headache for young kids and pets. But if you're just visiting for the season, this can be a huge thrill to witness!

A crowd around a large new year's eve bonfire in Reykjavik, Iceland, with fireworks in the night sky.
New Year's Bonfire - Iceland 2019

New Year's Eve Bonfires in Iceland

I almost forgot to mention the bonfires. In 2020-2021 the bonfires were cancelled due to COVID-19 and reports show that the 2021-2022 New Year's bonfires are also cancelled for the same reasons. I had the good fortune to be in Iceland for the turn from 2019 to 2020 when bonfires were like normal. Each community has a designated spot where piles of wood are gathered for days in advance. Then, hundreds of people gather to watch the blaze, visit with friends, and sing songs. The one we went to took a while to light, as there had been a steady drizzle leading up to the 31st, making the wood difficult to burn. But after a generous dose of gasoline, the fire lit up to a roaring blaze.

While some claim that this tradition is uniquely Icelandic, there are other cultures and communities that light bonfires to welcome the New Year, in particular the Netherlands.

Fireworks continue to be lit until January 6th, the epiphany, or in Iceland, the last day of Christmas celebrations.

New Year's Eve in Scotland

Scotland is a country I have yet to visit, but long to see. And since I have not yet visited the country, let alone for New Year's Eve, my decision to feature their celebration comes from listening to an interview with a woman from Scotland describing their typical customs that I found fascinating. I generally like to compare and contrast the folklore from Britain with that of Iceland and Scandinavia, so you'll soon see where the overlap occurs here too.

Scotland has a lot of influence over New Year's Even traditions in North America. Anyone who has ever heard the song Auld Lange Syne has heard the genius writing of Robert Burns. This song is featured on many Christmas albums and films about the holidays. Singing his classic song is not all that takes place on the 31st.

First Footin' In Scotland

Traditionally, the Scottish host open houses where a practice called "First Footin" takes place. This involves going door to door visiting your neighbours and friends to welcome in the new year and celebrate friendship. It is customary to bring a piece of coal, a piece of cake, and some ale or whiskey. If your first visitor of the night is a tall, dark, and handsome stranger, you'll be blessed with good luck for the coming year. This superstition dates back to the time of the Viking invasions in Scotland and Britain. Since the Vikings were generally fair-haired and fair-skinned, it was seen as a safer bet to encounter someone of dark hair, eyes, and, complexion, than someone fair.

New Year's Even in Scotland ends with fireworks displays just like many communities around the world enjoy.

New Year's Eve Traditions

What are your New Year's Eve traditions? Share in the comments below. Tell us your family rituals or the most interesting tradition you've encountered to greet the New Year!

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