Today (6th of January) marks the Epiphany, which for many Christians around the world commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus Christ and His baptism. For Icelanders however, the Epiphany officially marks the end of Christmas and is celebrated in a somewhat pagan fashion.
This uniquely Icelandic celebration is known as Þrettándinn (The Thirteenth) and is celebrated with bonfires, fireworks, family dinners and elf dances. The festival is one of the most heathen of holidays celebrated in Iceland and over the centuries was adopted into the Christmas (Jól) period.
Bonfires for the elves
Elf bonfires (álfabrennur) are a common part of the holiday and are held all over the country and in many places throughout Reykjavík. According to the old myths, it’s one of the few days when the hidden people (elves) make themselves visible to humans and the Elf King and Queen ride through the countryside visiting different bonfires. There, people dressed in elf and troll costumes sing songs about the elves and dance around large bonfires, often made up of used Christmas trees from nearby homes. Leaving the Christmas tree up past Þrettándinn is viewed as bordering on bad taste!
The video above shows a typical elf bonfire, with singing to the beat of drums.
Other folk traditions and tales
This holiday isn’t only known for the elves, it’s also a night dedicated to all the other magical beings we so love to read about in Icelandic folklore.
An old myth on Icelandic farms is that on the evening of Þrettándinn, cows can suddenly speak in human tongue. But while talking cows might seem adorable, one thing is for sure: if the cows are talking, you don’t want to hear what they have to say! Around midnight, the cows all stand up and begin to speak to each other in nonsensical rhyming couplets, which are supposed to drive anyone who overhears them insane.
Seals taking on human form
There have been many Icelandic folktales about seals transforming into humans on both New Year’s Eve and Þrettándinn. In one fascinating variation, seals are actually the animal incarnations of an ancient Pharaoh’s army, drowned in the Red Sea while chasing Moses and the Jews out of Egypt. The drowned soldiers became seals, but their bones remain much like human bones. So once a year, they become human, shedding their skins and dancing naked on beaches.
The last Yule Lad leaves town
On this day Icelanders also bid farewell to Candle Beggar (Kertasníkir), the last of the Yuletide Lads, who packs-up his waxy ill-gotten gains with the rest of the Christmas spirit to join his mischief-making brethren in the mountains.