Skammdegi is an Icelandic word that literally translates to “short days,” but is commonly understood as winter darkness. Iceland, home to the northern-most capitol city in the world, is one of the darkest countries during the winter. The mainland of Iceland rests just a few degrees shy of the Arctic Circle, though the line does pass through the island of Grímsey just off the north coast.
The shortest (and darkest) day of the year in the northern hemisphere is the Winter Solstice. In 2017, this day falls on the 21st of December. If you are in Reykjavík on this date, the sunrise will take place at 11:22 followed by the sunset at 15:29. This makes for an approximate four short hours of daylight. Having previously spent winter here, I can vouch that during these four hours, the sun hangs very low in the sky lacking strong bright rays but creating a beautiful periwinkle and pastel-colored sky.
Many friends and family members often ask how I can survive during the dark winter. The truth is, these days feel comfortable and familiar to my childhood growing up in Alaska. For many residing in the north though, these months often lead to the very real SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and depression. Having endured many subarctic winters, I have cultivated some remedies and hobbies that make the season seem not only bearable, but enjoyable. I’m happy to share some of my ideas as well as traditional Icelandic practices to help you cope wherever you are.
1. Go to the Swimming Pool
When foreigners think of Iceland, many imagine pictures of the Blue Lagoon and other idealized Instagram photographs of natural geothermal hot springs. What many don’t realize is that there is more to swimming culture in Iceland than just these places. Almost every town in Iceland, no matter how small, has a local swimming pool that is naturally heated and out of doors. Icelanders love their hot pots and make a habit of visiting them on a regular basis. In the hot pot (what Americans would call hot tub) is where you will hear the happenings, gossip and other tidbits of information from the locals. Making a ritual of going to the pool and being outside during the daylight hours is extremely helpful for fighting off the winter blues.
*Note: If you’re a visitor, make sure to read the signs and follow the pool rules. Shower off completely naked and with lots of soap to avoid a lecture from the shower room warden.
2. Share some Soup!
The concept of Soup Tuesday was started by local Icelandic newspaper The Grapevine a few years ago. Each week, the newspaper shares a new recipe for you to try at home in your attempt to stay warm. During the winter, I’ve found it useful to make a big pot of soup at the beginning of the week. Nothing is better than arriving home after a day trudging around in the rain, wind and snow, and being able to quickly heat up something filling and warm. Also, cooking soup (or any meal really) and inviting friends over is a great way to keep socially engaged when you would rather hide in hibernation.
Kjötsúpa, Icelandic meat soup, is one of the national culinary delicacies of the country. This soup is usually made with lamb meat, a number of root vegetables and seasoned to perfection. Heres a link to The Grapevine’s Soup Tuesday recipe:
3. Read a Book
Iceland has a rich history in story telling beginning with the sagas, which date back to the 13th century. Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world with about 5 books published for every 1,000 Icelanders. There is even a saying in Icelandic “að ganga með bók í maganum,” which literally translates to, “to walk with a book in your stomach.” This means that everyone has a story to tell.
During the winter holiday season there is a large number of new books being released. This time is called jólabókaflóð, or, in English, Christmas book flood. It is very common to give and receive books as holiday gifts. There is a catalogue sent to every household in November called Bókatíðindi that has listings of all the new titles. People flip through the catalogue and dog-ear the pages containing books they would like to receive. Families commonly spend Christmas day relaxing at home together and reading their new books.
4. A Spoonful of Lýsi
It wasn’t until I came to Iceland that I had my first experience with Lýsi, aka cod liver oil. This delicacy has been a staple in the Icelandic diet since around the 1930s and is used to combat vitamin deficiency due to lack of sunlight. Lýsi is packed full of nutrients such as Vitamins A, D and E as well as Omega-3 fatty acids. In Iceland, this is traditionally consumed by taking a heaping spoonful of the pungent oil daily. Straight, no chaser. If you’re unprepared for the aroma of a small animal dying in your mouth, feel free to try the fruit or lemon flavored options, which adds an unpleasant coating to the already abominable taste. I tried to incorporate this traditional habit into my life but after an honest attempt, I just couldn’t do it. Many swear by the powers of Lýsi, so I recommend giving it a try to see for yourself. Otherwise, just stick with your good old fashioned multi vitamin.
5. Get Creative
Exercise your creativity by learning a new skill or doing something artistic to keep your mind engaged and active during the winter. For me this has been learning to knit. It wasn’t until a snowboard accident that destroyed my shoulder a few years ago, that I took decided to learn. Unable to join my friends on the slopes (or do much of anything) I spent my winter days watching movies and knitting scarves and hats. Little did I know that after moving to Iceland, this would become one of my favorite activities.
In Iceland, almost all children learn to knit at some point, either by their parents or at school. Knitting is not only a common hobby, but an important market for the Icelandic economy. Tourists flock to Iceland and most return with some kind of knit good from a lopapeysa to socks. Knowing how to knit can save you lots of money here, as the wool is relatively affordable, compared to purchasing a new sweater.
6. Light It Up
It’s early October and I can already feel the days growing shorter. For me, it’s important to fill my home with as much extra light as possible. I enjoy lighting candles both in the mornings and evenings to create a soft glow and inviting atmosphere in my home. I also decorate the interior of my apartment with warm colored string lights. Many of my neighbors do the same and I appreciate the pleasant light that radiates from their homes and lights up the neighborhood.
In addition to this cozy lighting, there is another device known as a happy light (also mood light or therapy light), which is a lamp that emulates natural daylight. It helps improve mood and energy levels as well as fight seasonal depression disorders. Many people use these in their homes during the winter, myself included. I’ve found that spending a little time in front of these lights each day greatly helps brighten my mindset.
7. Music Festivals and Holidays
Iceland knows how to celebrate. Whether it’s a music festival like Iceland Airwaves in November or New Years Eve, locals know how to take advantage of these events and share fun times with friends.
There is a huge amount of local musical talent that performs frequently at bars and coffee houses. You can find every type of genre from electronic house, to the notorious Icelandic rap, to your intimate open mic night. Iceland has a number of winter music festivals including Iceland Airwaves, Sónar and this years new Sigur Rós sponsored festival Norður og Niður.
There are many holidays during the winter months that I will delve into in a later article. My personal favorite this year was Þrettándi. This holiday takes place on the 6th of January and is the celebration of the end of the Christmas season. This day is celebrated with large bonfires beside the ocean, fireworks and celebrations around town.
8. Go Outside!
As I alluded to in the section about going to the swimming pool, one of the most important things you can do to stay sane in the winter is go outside. Though the desire to cozy up inside at home with candles, hot tea, a warm blanket and a book (lets be honest and say Netflix), it’s incredibly worthwhile to spend time outside each day.
There are many winter activities that you can participate in during the winter months. Just 30 minutes outside of Reykjavík is a small ski hill called Bláfjöll, which can be paid for by the hour, making for a great afternoon of skiing. There are also plenty of nordic ski tracks and trails perfect for long walks.
If you really can’t bring yourself to leave the house, I’m a big fan of YouTube yoga videos to get yourself moving even while staying home. Just remember to stay active!
So there you have it, my personalized list of winter activities to enjoy during the skammdegi in Iceland (or anywhere really for that matter). If you have any of your own suggestions, I’d love to hear them!
Hello! Thanks for reading my articles! My name is Elizabeth and I am a student at the University of Iceland studying Icelandic language and culture. I’m an avid outdoor adventurer and have devoted the last few years to finding amazing places and activities in Iceland. I work creating personalized itineraries and help organize boutique trips around Iceland. Please contact me for help planning your future adventure to Iceland!