New Year’s Eve Fireworks and Bonfires

Icelanders are famous for their love of fireworks, and foreigners have described New Year’s Eve as sounding like a war zone. New Year’s Eve is Gamlárskvöld in Icelandic, meaning old year’s evening. Traditionally, families come together, have dinner, maybe go to a bonfire, and watch the Áramótaskaup (New Year’s Eve Comedy Show).

Then when that’s over at 11:30, everyone goes outside to shoot up fireworks or watch what others have. The number of fireworks lighting the sky goes up steadily until midnight when everything goes completely berserk. We do not have a special New Year’s Eve Countdown, but people make sure they have the time right. After midnight is when all the parties begin.

It is quite a sight, and having a good vantage point is essential; you won’t see much if you have a huge tree or a building right before you.

Five Best Places to Watch the New Year’s Eve Fireworks

Wherever you will find a fairly high or flat vantage point is good to watch the fireworks in the capital area, but these are the five favourite spots.

Skólavörðuholt by Hallgrímskirkja

In recent years, the grounds of Hallgrímskirkja have become popular among tourists and locals. You may not see much, but this place is more for the atmosphere than seeing fantastic fireworks show. Those who want a little bit smaller crowd can go to Landakot Hill where the Catholic Church is.

Ægissíða Beach

The beach in Reykjavik’s west side is a popular spot for locals to shoot fireworks. It is also one of the places where a small bonfire is set up, so there’s a lot to see. It is a good place for watching fireworks because it is a large flat area and gives views over a large portion of the capital area.

new year's eve fireworks, bonfire, ægissíða, reykjavik
Photo: Nordic Visitor

Öskjuhlíð Hill

One of the highest points in Reykjavik. It is also where the Pearl is, with its 360° viewing deck. Even if you don’t go to the deck, you should get a good view of Reykjavik and the capital. It’s good to be there at least 23:30.

Laugarnes Peninsula

About half an hour’s walk from Harpa, a small peninsula gives a great view over Reykjavik’s downtown coastline.

Breiðholt Hill

The suburb Breiðholt is the highest point of Reykjavik.

New Year’s Eve Fireworks

The first written source of the use of fireworks in Iceland was in 1662, when Icelanders signed a deal and agreed that the Danish kingdom would be inherited. Up until that point, the Danish State Council had elected the king.

New Year’s Eve Fireworks over The Pond. Photo: Robert Parviainen

Then when Iceland celebrated its 1000 anniversary in 1875, firework shows were held at least in Reykjavik. The celebration in Reykjavik was held twice because people felt it was a failure the first time, so it was held again a month later.

Icelanders began “shooting up the old year,” so to speak, on New Year’s in the 1890s, and we haven’t looked back since. For the longest time, the ICE-SAR teams had a monopoly on selling fireworks as it was and still is their primary way of funding. A few years ago, the laws were changed, and a few privately owned companies sell fireworks.

New Year’s Eve Bonfires

Bonfires have been lit on many occasions in many countries for centuries. It is not known that New Year’s bonfires were held in this country earlier than in the latter half of the 18th century. Before that time, timber and other firewood were simply too valuable to be wasted on such things. The very first example is from the year 1791, when schoolboys from Hólavallaskóli in Reykjavík gathered barrels and other wooden debris and set fire to a hill they called Vulcan (but Vulcan is a foreign name for a volcano). The hill in question is probably Landakot hill.

More than 50 years later, New Year’s Bonfires (and on the Last Day of Christmas) seem to have become quite common. However, judging by the description of Klemens Jónsson (b. 1862), they were not very festive, and he says that there was a lot of drunkenness and disorder. At this time, they also started to dance an “elf dance” around the fires. That custom originated from the boys at the Learned School, who, in 1871, premiered the play New Year’s Night, which featured elves. They then got involved on New Year’s Eve, together with students from there and from Copenhagen, and dressed up as light elves or black elves, walked down to The Pond in Reykjavík with torches in hand, danced and sang elf songs.

This year, bonfires will be lit for the first time since 2019. There are 10 places in Reykjavik with bonfires, but more are in the capital area and around the country, totaling almost 100. They usually start at around 20:00-21:00.

Ægissíða (small one) – Also a great place to watch the fireworks.

Skerjafjörður, by Skildinganes 48-52 (small one) – Close to Ægissíða. Also, a great place to watch the fireworks.

Suðurhlíðar, below Fossvogur Cemetery (small one) – A great place if you’re going to see the fireworks from Öskjuhlíð.

Laugardalur, below Laugarásvegur 18 (small one)

Geirsnef (large one) – This is usually a dog park but is used for a bonfire on New Year’s Eve. It’s not very handy to get to if you don’t have a car.

Suðurfell (small one) – in Breiðholt. A good one to check out if you are going to watch the fireworks from Breiðholt.

Rauðavatn Lake (north side – small one) – This is in the Reykjavik suburbs.

Gufunes by Gufunesbær house (large one) – The only large bonfire in Reykjavik. It gives pretty good views over Reykjavik as well to watch the fireworks.

Klébjerg, Kjalarnes (small one) – Kjalarnes is on the way to Akranes, under the hills of Esja. You will have to have a car to go there.

Úlfarsfell (small one – 15:00) – Another suburb of Reykjavik.

It is not permittable to shoot up fireworks or use firework flares by the bonfires. You can use sparklers and flares that don’t shoot things. It is recommended that people wear protective goggles and gloves.

The Thirteenth Day of Christmas

bonfire, last day of christmas, fireworks
Ægissíða Bonfire on The Last Day of Christmas. Photo: Reykjavik City – Roman Gerasymenko

New Year’s Eve is not the only day you will see bonfires and fireworks. The last day of Christmas, The Thirteenth as it is colloquially called, is on January 6.

The last Yule Lad, Kertasníkir or Candle Stealer, leaves for the mountains that day. It is considered backup New Year’s Eve if the weather during New Year’s Eve is too bad to celebrate. It is also the last day you can legally shoot fireworks until the end of December.

The folklore for the last day of Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Christmas day has gotten muddled through the centuries, and many of the same supernatural elements apply to both nights. It is possible the confusion happened when Icelanders took up the Gregorian calendar. People weren’t sure when Christmas started and ended; for centuries, January 5 was called “Old Christmas Day.”

Animals can speak, and elves move houses

It is said that cows get the ability to speak like humans on any of the days, but it is important not to listen to them since you will most likely lose your mind. Seals change their forms and become human and bewitched people will finally get their human form again. The hidden people also use the time to move houses.

elves, new year's eve

In one tale, The Manservant and the Water Elves, a farmer is baffled at how his servants are killed on Christmas night while everyone is away at church. Ultimately, he hired a brave manservant who saw the Water Elves come and destroy everything in their way so they could hold a Christmas party. He tricks them and saves the farmer from the Christmas night curse.

Another story tells of a man who sat down at crossroads to meet elves who were moving houses. They kept offering him great treasures, but he never said a word. They all left their offering with him. This went on all night, but at last, a woman came and offered him melted fat which he loved. Instead of just waiting for her to leave, he said, “I have never been able to say no to that!” With that, all his treasures disappeared. He told his friends and family what had happened to him, but not much more. Soon he lost everything, his mind and his livelihood.

Yet another tells of a man who lay out in the cowshed on New Year’s Day morning to hear the cows talk. He heard one say, “Now it’s time to talk.” Another answered: “There’s a man in here.” “We shall make him mad,” the third cow said. “Before the day comes,” said the fourth. The man could tell others what he heard but not more because the cows had made him mad.

Despite folklore being a bit muddled over the holidays, the last day of Christmas has the strongest connection to elves. People often dress up as elves for the day, come together by the bonfire to sing songs about elves, and shoot up the last fireworks.

Do you have a favourite places to watch the New Year’s Eve Fireworks in Iceland?

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