New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik is a chaotic celebration: wild and wonderful and happy. And loud. Very, very loud.
There are bonfires: huge, roaring blazes where neighbors gather with their friends and families to mingle and sing and celebrate. The fires are mostly fueled with leftover wooden shipping pallets; Iceland imports more finished goods than it exports, and you’ve gotta do something to get rid of the things.
The fireworks are just incredible. Icelanders detonate about half a kiloton of explosives during the course of the evening. Put in perspective, that’s about the yield of a North Korean nuclear test — but without the radioactive fallout, and not all at once. The fireworks start just about sunset, a little before 4 p.m. And they keep going and going and going …
There are no “official” fireworks displays in Iceland. The all-volunteer search and rescue teams, commonly known as ICE-SAR because it takes less time to say than the official name, Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg, sell fireworks throughout December. Proceeds from the sales pay for ICE-SAR equipment and supplies. It’s how they can afford to go pull tourists out of dire situations year after year. Buying a box or two of fireworks is practically a patriotic duty.
True story: in the beginning of December, a group of British skiers came to Iceland to trek across the Icelandic highlands without assistance. The highlands are essentially uninhabited, because in the winter they’re pretty much uninhabitable. The Brits had to be rescued, of course; but then they went back. And had to be rescued again. After the third rescue, they called it quits. When I asked my landlords about the expedition they just shrugged and said “Well, everyone will need to buy an extra box of fireworks.”
And we’re not talking sparklers here: it’s more like buying the Werner von Braun Starter Kit. When one of them hits a building (or detonates on the ground because it wasn’t propped up all that well and fell over when it was lit), you’re expecting lots and lots of casualties. Fortunately, there don’t seem to be any.
Think “Vikings with incendiary devices” and you’ve got a pretty good idea what New Year’s Eve is like.
There’s an hour shortly before midnight when an eerie silence descends. Ninety per cent of the Icelandic population is indoors, watching a television show called Áramótaskaup – the New Year’s Mockery – a wickedly funny lampooning of Icelandic politics, business, and culture. The show this year opened with the Icelandic prime minster (an actor, not the real one) sitting in a glass box, naked. It got a little weird after that.
Lisa and I were here last year for New Year’s Eve, and my sister had planned to come this year. She wasn’t able to make it; but literally 10 minutes after I got the bad news about her travel plans, an old friend texted to say he was thinking about coming to Iceland and could I put him up for a while if he did. So I had company after all.
Kevin was my mentor in the Air Force: stationed here in 1980 as a young admin officer (before going to law school and becoming a JAG), he saw very little of Iceland other than the airport and the area around his radar station in the southeast. It was his first New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik: we watched Áramótaskaup from a jam-packed hotel bar and then went out to enjoy the show. At some point in the middle of it all, it began to snow, but I didn’t notice till it was time to leave.