Today is bolludagur (Cream Puff Day) here in Iceland, during which we gorge ourselves with - what else - cream puffs. It is followed in rapid succession by sprengidagur (Eat Salted Lamb Until You Burst Day) and öskudagur (Ash Wednesday).

February blues antidoteThis happy trio marks the beginning of Lent each year. Bolludagur comes first, on Monday. On this day children are supposed to sneak into their parents’ room before they get out of bed in the morning and spank them on the bottom with colourful wands specifically made for that purpose. The number of spanks they manage to get in determines the number of bollur - cream puffs – they get to imbibe. Meaning that hitting your mother, say, five times on the butt will earn you five cream puffs.

The spanking bit does not extend to grownups (unless they are partial to that sort of thing), who can simply go out and buy their own cream puffs. In fact, most people here get an early start on the bolludagur and buy them as soon as the bakeries start offering them, which is generally the weekend prior to the official day. Here’s a little educational video designed to teach people how to eat their bollur with a minimum of fuss. Watch and learn.

Right after bolludagur comes sprengidagur, when you’re supposed to eat saltkjöt og baunir (salted lamb and split-pea soup) until you burst. Of the three days, this is my favourite, simply because I LOVE salted lamb and split pea soup. Seriously, it’s one of the most superexcellent meals ever. Super unhealthy, too, what with all the sodium and preservatives and whatnot, so eating it once a year is about right. This past weekend we went grocery shopping and bought salted lamb in copious amounts and already the thought of tomorrow’s dinner is making me swoon. – Incidentally, the idea behind sprengidagur is that you eat so much that you can fast for the entire 40 days of Lent, which of course is what I will be doing. (not.)

When that’s done, we’re onto öskudagur, which is the same as Ash Wednesday and sort of like Iceland’s version of Halloween. When I was a little kid you were supposed to sew these little pouches and fill them with ash and then pin them to the backs of unsuspecting adults who would then go around for the entire day with them pinned to their backs. Personally I never got the point. So you managed to pin a pouch to some person’s back – whee! They walked off, and you were out of a pouch that you’d put considerable effort into making. Absurd.

A little later I learned that this tradition came from the old days, when people were confined to the same general vicinity (read: the same farm) and moreover had scraps of material or wool left over from sewing and knitting their own clothes. They would use that scrap of material to make pouches that they filled with ash and pinned to people’s backs. If the person walked around all day with an ash pouch on their back they became objects of ridicule. Often those targeted would be those who were rather more vulnearble than others - a bit odd, or old, or somehow lower down the social ladder. (Today we would probably call that mobbing.) This tradition of ash pouches sort of disappeared with urbanization and when people stopped sewing their own clothes. When I was a kid, the tradition was mostly propagated by the schools that used the making of pouches as an excuse to teach kids how to sew in home ec. The tradition had been removed from its natural context, hence it made no sense any more and just felt stupid.

Meanwhile, up north in Akureyri they had a far better tradition: everybody got dressed up in costumes and then banged a wooden barrel that supposedly contained a dead cat (!). This activity, prosaically enough, was called “banging the cat out of the barrel”. There was also candy involved, though it did not tumble out of the same barrel as the dead cat, thankfully.

Today the prevailing tradition on Ash Wednesday has been gleaned from the Akureyri tradition, though without the dead cat part. Kids get dressed up in costumes and go around to shops and businesses, where they have to sing songs to get candy. Sort of like trick or treat except they don’t generally target private homes (probably no one is there, since practically everyone in Iceland works) and they actually have to work (sing) for their treats.

At any rate, these days really help brighten up the dreariness of February, as you can probably imagine. Which is probably the main reason we like them so much. 

For more weird and wonderful facts about the Icelanders, check out The Little Book of the Icelanders or The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days

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