Halloween hits Iceland's shores
Ten years ago, if you had walked around some of Iceland's retail stores this time of year, there was no trace of Halloween—or Hrekkjavaka as it is known in Icelandic. You would have had to travel to select stores to assemble a costume and find some Halloweenesque candy. Today, stores are full of fake spider webs, fake blood, fake fangs, pumpkins, costumes, and individually wrapped candies for dispersing at your door on October 31. Icelanders, especially those under 15 and retail stores, have truly embraced Halloween. If the availability of goods is any cultural barometer, the Halloween scene is thriving and here to stay in the north.
A deep-rooted love for folklore and costumes
Icelanders have a long-standing storytelling tradition, especially about tales of elves, trolls, and hidden people. With a culture so rich in myths and legends, it's no wonder Halloween resounds deeply. Icelandic children already dress up and sing for candy earlier each year on Ash Wednesday (Öskudagur in Icelandic). While Ash Wednesday still has strong religious ties in many countries, the day has less connotation in Iceland. It is more of a day for kids to dress up for school and in groups to go door-to-door, where their singing is rewarded with candy. Consequently, it was not much of a stretch for them to dress up and gather candy at the end of October.
Ancient tradition with a Nordic twist
All Hallows' Eve has roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, brought to the United States and Canada and adopted by immigrants, especially in the 19th century. However, Iceland was fashionably late to the Halloween party. Only in the past ten years has Iceland seen exponential growth in accepting Halloween. One of the reasons for Halloween's popularity in Iceland could be the timing. For most cultures that embrace Halloween, the festivities typically happen during the autumn harvest. Here in Iceland, it is already winter, according to the old Norse calendar, and to the snow that is sometimes on the ground. By late October, the darkness of winter is setting in like a heavy wool blanket, and Icelanders tend to look forward to having something to look forward to to make it through the winter.
Inevitable opposition and pumpkin imports
Naturally, some Icelanders oppose adopting such a commercial "American" celebration. While detractors may bemoan the cultural colonization of Halloween, there are few qualms about Christmas decorations hitting store shelves in late September in Iceland. Moreover, it is hard to deny people's innate love of costumes and sweets—making it the ideal celebration in many ways. A walk around the neighborhood now reveals schools, homes, and shops decorated with pumpkins, skeletons, and witches. Halloween parties are catching on, along with costume contests and trick-or-treating at homes, making it clear that treat-or-treaters are welcome. Fun fact: in 2020, Iceland imported 53 tons of pumpkins. By 2024, that number is on course to more than double!
The rising popularity of Halloween in Iceland is a testament to how cultures constantly evolve and incorporate new elements. While it is essential to recognize the negative impacts of commercializing traditional celebrations, it is likely next to impossible to deny the attractiveness of some. Plus, we cannot deny the unifying power of shared celebrations, regardless of origin. So, if you find yourself in Iceland on October 31, don't be surprised if you see ghosts, superheroes, many princesses, and elves crowding the streets.