Welcome to the haze and smoke of New Years Eve in Iceland. Listen to the explosions, cracks and booms echoing off buildings and mountains. Hear the distorted sounds of gunpowder ignited for the initial lift off, then a noise like giant Velcro being ripped apart as the iron filings heat and the metal salts burn showering down rainbows of blue, green, gold, red and white. Welcome to a visual war between neighbourhoods.
As fireworks shows here are not sponsored by local councils, but paid for by individuals, an unacknowledged competition has grown between neighbours. Communities battle each year for the best display. There is no prize or recognition; the only reward is a beautiful light show for everybody and an individuals’ sense of achievement.
Coming from Australia, where the sale of fireworks is illegal even at NY, and local councils have an annual budget in the millions for fireworks displays, I admire the way Iceland has arranged things. Not only do the councils get off cheaply but, fireworks are only sold by ICESARS (Iceland’s search and rescue), raising up to half their annual funding. I have heard that in recent years in an effort towards reducing air pollution, some are buying fireworks to support ICESARS but not taking them home. Others are buying a seedling instead, a new initiative in environmental consciousness. I’ve also heard of individuals and companies spending over 200.000 ISK for their displays. Change is slow.
If it’s a clear night the fireworks shoot up and echo in the stars, the smoke builds, but dissipates fairly soon. If there are clouds it’s a different story. At 10pm the smoke is noticeable but could be mistaken for a light fog. The scent of burnt gunpowder is vague and doesn’t yet sting the back of your throat. By 11:30 the smoke has increased until, after another 40 minutes of constant cracks, booms, whistles and whips, it’s so dense it’s like being in a bushfire.
There are no longer sharp edges to buildings and the world glows a lazy orange as smoke and light combine. By midnight you can taste the weight of the air, it itches, making you cough. If you’re inside, protecting your lungs, the detritus of shells following gravity back to earth, sound like someone walking across your roof.
My first NYE in Iceland I spent in Neskaupstaður where the competition between neighbours and neighbourhoods was intense. There must have been a well-established war between two houses on one street, as the fire brigade parked their truck across the road midway between both, but facing neither, as if ensuring each side had exactly the same amount of support if (when?) their displays lit a building on fire. With the handful of old wooden houses on the street, this seemed sensible.
Being surrounded by lights going off across kilometers in Reykjavik is beautiful. But, in a small community (especially one that has money), it becomes both a show and a game. It’s gleeful looking to your left or right on a snow covered street and seeing your neighbour looking at you, their eyes bright and mischievous in the flare of a lit fuse. The noise and lights bound and reflect back and forth between the snow-covered mountain ranges. The fireworks multiply, mirrored in the water of the fjord. Occasionally, you catch yourself looking at the mountain as a rumble, not connected to the fireworks, reminds you of avalanches. The show gradually grows as those who could afford one or two let them loose to blend with those who bought hundreds, building the display for all. Even if it started as a competition it has, by midnight, become an expression of community fun.
The next day, walking toward the ocean for the traditional NY swim, the burnt out shells and sticks left strewn across the ground taint the joy of celebration with the guilt of reality and environmental consequence.
When looking at the broader world, it’s hard not to see the irony and possibly the aptness of welcoming in a new year with the sound of war, the beauty of a rainbow, the aftermath of a rubbish dump, and the renewed connection of a community.
Text: Emanda Percival