-the day winter ends, but not really...
Text: Emanda Percival
After a long dark winter, the sun returns. Its golden sphere rolling above mountain peaks for a few brief minutes shouting: summer will return. Though often hidden by clouds or snow-storms, the day the sun returns is cause for celebration. In Iceland it’s known as Sólardagur – Sun Day. It’s a day of pancakes and coffee; nothing in Iceland is celebrated without coffee. The date varies between mountain ranges but it arrives sometime between the last days of January and the first days of February.
Unlike areas between 67°24’ and 72°34’ latitude both North and South, Iceland does not have twenty-four hours of dark during winter. The sun always rises, even if it is just to sweep fleetingly along the horizon. For towns in the south-west of the island this means that although winter nights can be twenty hours long, there are at least four hours when the sun is seen.
In other areas where there are close-knit mountain ranges, scored millennia ago by ever retreating glacial fingers i.e. fjords, the snow may glow with reflected light for four hours, but the sun itself becomes a mythical creature in the dull days after November.
Winter Solstice – December 21st - is a good day, knowing that we’re half way through and it’s all up hill is great. But days grow longer two minutes at a time making January a slow month. There are only so many decent Netflix shows and puzzles to be done. For me the better day is Sólardagur. It’s not celebrated in the south and south-west of the country though the light quality is noticeably different, shifting in February from sunrise/sunset, to a few bright minutes of mid-day. Sun Day is celebrated in the fjords, where the increased degree of the sun above the horizon means it can be seen for the first time in around 4 months. That short, ten minute flash of yellow is magical.
In the centuries before science overtook mythology, when home was a turf house shared with seven other unwashed people and a smoky peat fire for warmth. When to step outside was to face wild storms, snow too deep to walk through, and winds waiting to sweep anything not tied-down away. When a person had nothing to do but watch supplies dwindle and wait for the winter to end, Sólardagur must have felt like hope. Soon, crops would grow, lambs would be born, and the sea would melt enough to fish. I don’t know if in these earlier years the day was celebrated with pancakes, but I imagine it was celebrated none the less.
This year, on the glorious return of the sun, I was the only one in town who swam through snowdrifts and leapt up mountainsides to stand in the 10m2 patch of direct, blinding, daylight. (Icelander’s seem not to be as affected by winter darkness as I am). After five glorious, solitary minutes it was over. The sun had slipped behind a rock and was gone for the day. I traipsed back to my neighbours to Sólardagur the Icelandic way.
Pancakes in Iceland are more French crepe than American fluffy. They’re eaten all year round but on Sólardagur, fjords are filled with the scent of batter being fried golden. Slip inside most houses and you’ll be seated at a table laden with steaming coffee, a monstrous stack of pancakes, and a plethora of sweet and savoury toppings: sugar, lemon, cucumber, strawberries, blueberries, cheese, tomatoes, salmon, left-over everything, and on and on. If you wanted to be more traditional your Sólardagur pancakes would be rolled into cigars, covered in sugar and eaten with fingers.
The way most fjords are shaped, mountain ranges being irregularly ridged, with great gashes taken out and high peaks in inconvenient locations. It can take a long time from Sólardagur until light touches every house in the valley. An unpopulated cliff will be lit one day, five houses in town the next. Due to a stone finger the middle section of town stays dark, but the first farm in the valley will be bright. Eventually, the world spins and sun reaches us all and we know: winter is over…but it’s Iceland, so not really.