Icelandic Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Iceland, a volcanic island in the North Atlantic Ocean and the most westerly nation of Europe. It is also the least populated and was the last to be settled. Located between Greenland, the United Kingdom, and Norway, it is about 500 miles northwest of the outer islands of Scotland. Iceland touches the Arctic Circle with its northernmost edge, but the Gulf Stream brings mild winters and cool summer temperatures to the island. The country is predominately a plateau with a coastline of bays and fjords. Because of its glaciers and active volcanoes, it is often referred to as “the Land of Fire and Ice.” The island is approximately 40,000 square miles (103,000) square kilometers in size, slightly smaller than the state of Colorado.
According to the CIA World Factbook, 313,183 people lived in Iceland in 2012, residing mainly in towns located on its 3,000-mile (5,000-kilometer) coastline. More than half of the total population resides in Reykjavik, the northernmost national capital city in the world. The Factbook also records that roughly 80 percent of Icelanders belong to the Lutheran Church of Iceland, that 94 percent have a combined Norse and Celtic ancestry, and that the country has one of the highest standards of living in Europe, with an especially high quality of housing. Education, including university, is provided free for all of its citizens, as are health care and retirement pensions. Iceland's fishing industry supplies more than 70 percent of the country's exports, aluminum accounts for about 11 percent, and geothermal and hydropower provide two other major economic resources.
The first Icelandic immigrants to United States settled in Utah in 1855. During the next half century, thousands also migrated to northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Alaska. They worked in the areas of agriculture, building, and fishing in their new locale, all trades familiar to them from home. As the United States became more industrialized in the early twentieth century, the economy changed in character from agrarian to more urban. This change affected many small Icelandic American farming communities, and many immigrants began relocating to larger urban areas such as New York City, Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco. While some still live in rural immigrant communities in the Midwest, many have been absorbed into a broader populace over the course of the last half-century.
The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimated in 2010 that the total number of people of Icelandic descent in the United States was 51,234 (roughly enough people to fill New York's Yankee Stadium). At the time more than half of Icelandic Americans lived in the West and the Midwest. According to the American Community Survey, the states with the largest populations of Icelandic Americans included California (7,372), Washington (6,800), Minnesota (3,875), and Utah (3,861). A smaller number of Icelanders reside in Florida (2,368) and North Dakota (2,840).
HISTORY OF THE PEOPLE
Early History In 825 CE the Irish monk Dicuil recorded the earliest firsthand accounts of settlers on the island of Thule, which later became known as Iceland. Sometime between 850 and 875, a Swede named Garðar Svavarsson is thought to have arrived on the island, followed by an influx of pagan Norse from 874 to 930. The first man to settle permanently in Iceland was Ingólfur Arnarson. According to the Landnamabok, or Book of Settlements, written in the twelfth century, Arnarson was a chieftain from Norway. Bringing his family and dependents to Iceland, he built a farm on the site of the later capital city of Reykjavik. Like many of the first settlers in Iceland, Arnarson had fled Norway to avoid oppression under the tyrannical ruler Harald Fairhair. Harald was attempting to unify Norway by conquering all of the other lords and kings of Norway. Many early settlers of this period were seafarers, including Erik the Red (Eirikur Rauði), who discovered Greenland in 982. In the year 1000 his son, Leif Eriksson, became the first person to travel to North America, predating Columbus by 500 years.
Iceland's central parliament, the Althingi, was established in 930, along with a constitutional law code. It is considered to be the oldest parliament in the world. In the tenth century small numbers of Irish and Scots settlers brought Christianity, specifically Catholicism, to Iceland, and the parliament adopted the religion in the year 1000, about one Page 388 | Top of Articlehundred years after Christianity had made its way to mainland Scandinavia. Bishoprics, or dioceses, were quickly established in the town of Skálholt in 1056 and in Hólar in 1106. Both places became centers of learning, typical of medieval universities throughout Europe, which were established for training clerics.
Feuds and civil war came to Iceland between 1262 and 1264, weakening the island's unity, and by 1397 Iceland was under the dominion of Denmark. Danish kings took control of the church, forcing Icelanders to abandon Catholicism for Danish Lutheranism. The Danes also established a monopoly over Icelandic trade, devastating the island's economy. By 1662 Denmark had taken complete control of Iceland.
The first census of the island, taken in 1703, revealed a population of 50,000. After a smallpox epidemic that lasted from 1707 to 1709, that number plunged to a low of 35,000. A series of famines and natural disasters plagued Iceland that century, keeping the population below 40,000. By 1800 there were only half the number of Icelanders there had been in 1100. In addition, the Danish dissolved the Althingi at the end of the eighteenth century, causing further distress for the Icelanders.
Modern Era Iceland began to develop a national identity during the nineteenth century. The National Library of Iceland was established in 1818, followed by the Icelandic National Museum in 1863 and the National Archives in 1882. In 1843 the Althingi was reestablished, although it was only used as a consultative assembly. Statesman and scholar Jón Sigurðsson led a political struggle for national independence, and Denmark granted Iceland home rule in 1874, allowing Icelanders to write their own constitution. In 1904 Hannes Hafstein was appointed as the first Icelandic government minister. Iceland gained control of almost all its domestic affairs in 1918, although the Danish king remained the official head of state.
In 1940 British forces invaded and occupied Iceland as a place from which to fight Germany. Promised favorable compensation, Iceland submitted but officially maintained its neutrality throughout World War II. American forces took over the defense of the North Atlantic island in 1941. One American stationed in Iceland was David “The Zink” Zinkoff, a famous sports announcer in Philadelphia known for twenty years as the “Voice of the 76ers.” After the war Zinkoff celebrated his military service by founding the Icelandic-American Veterans, informally called the FBI—“Forgotten Bastards of Iceland”—in 1950. It lasted until his death in 1985.
On June 17, 1944, a national referendum established the modern Republic of Iceland with 97 percent voter approval. After achieving its independence, the country quickly joined four important international organizations, beginning with the United Nations in 1946. It was a founding member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1947 and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. In 1950 it joined the Council of Europe (COE). Turning its attentions homeward, it inaugurated a national theater and symphony orchestra, also in 1950.
Iceland's strategic location in the North Atlantic made the country attractive to Western allies. Iceland had no military of its own, so in 1951 it signed a defense agreement with the United States, creating the Iceland Defense Force, which was based at Naval Air Station Keflavik. The group included members of the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy as well as Icelandic civilians. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Iceland continued to fortify its position in Europe, joining the Nordic Council, a forum for political and economic cooperation, in 1952. The Iceland Defense Force disbanded in 2006, and the U.S. military withdrew its last troops in September of that year.
Beginning in the 1950s and over the course of the next several decades, Iceland concentrated on strengthening its vitally important fishing industry. Fishery limits, which had been set at 3 miles off the coast through agreements with competitors in neighboring countries, were extended to 4 miles in 1952. Two years later the boundaries were expanded again to 12 miles from the coast. The struggle between Iceland and Great Britain over fishing rights during this period is referred to as the Cod Wars. By the mid-1970s fishing limits had been extended to 200 miles, causing a sudden boom in the Icelandic economy. Through negotiations within NATO, Britain, Norway, and other countries conceded to the extensions as a preventive measure to keep the Soviet Union from gaining more control in the Atlantic Ocean. In the twenty-first century, even with these broad limits, Icelandic fisheries have become depleted, leading to a decline in the economy.
Iceland joined the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1970. Denmark returned ancient Icelandic manuscripts to Iceland in 1971, a final gesture of the restoration of Icelandic culture. In 1974 the country marked the 1,100th anniversary of its original settlement. Reykjavik celebrated its bicentennial in 1986 and also hosted the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit, a milestone of the Cold War era, and in 1994 Icelanders commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the modern Icelandic Republic. In 2008, during the global financial crisis, the Landsbanki (the national bank of Iceland) collapsed. Although the bank continued to honor the accounts of Iceland's citizens, foreign investors suffered losses, and the failure greatly affected Iceland's economy. The country was absorbed into the European Union (EU) in 2009, which boosted its economy and national credit rating, and unemployment declined from 9 percent in 2010 to 6 percent in 2011.
Iceland has always been considered progressive in the realm of women's rights. The country retained its Page 389 | Top of Articlefirst female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, for four consecutive terms (1980–1996). In 2009 Jóhanna Sigurðardottir was elected as the first female prime minister, a position that holds more power than the president's in Iceland's democratic republican government. Prime Minister Sigurðardottir was also the first openly gay public official in Iceland, a testament to the country's acceptance of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community.
During the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, several volcanic eruptions affected the country. The tourism industry suffered because volcanic ash disrupted air travel and because fears of future eruptions deterred visitors. Many Icelanders had to be evacuated as a result of massive flooding from snowmelt. Three major eruptions stand out in the modern era. In 1973 the Heimaey volcano erupted on the only inhabited island in the Westmann Islands. In 2010 Eyjafjallajökull on the Eyjafjöll glacier suspended much of the air travel in northern Europe for weeks. The eruption of Grímsvötn on the Vatnajökull Glacier interrupted European travel again, though not to the extent of the previous year's blast.
SETTLEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES
Among the first to leave predominately Presbyterian Iceland for North America were Thorarinn Haflidason Thorason and Gudmund Gudmundsson, who had converted to Mormonism in Denmark, moved to Westmann Island, and started the first Icelandic Mormon Mission. They arrived in Utah in 1855, seeking a religious freedom denied them in Iceland. In all, eleven Mormon converts left Iceland for North America between 1854 and 1857, eventually settling in the town of Spanish Fork, Utah, along with other Scandinavians. For the next twenty years, small groups of Icelanders joined the settlement from time to time. Most of these immigrants were artisans, tradespersons, and farmers, and they brought useful skills for the frontier with them, although it was some time before they could use those skills in gainful employment.
The last three decades of the nineteenth century saw the largest wave of Icelandic immigration. Between 1870 and 1900, about 15,000 Icelanders resettled in North America. The majority of these immigrants found a home on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg in the town of Gimli, located in Manitoba, Canada. They called this colony New Iceland. In addition to the significant community in Utah, those coming to the United States settled primarily in the upper Midwest, especially in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakota Territories. William Wickmann, a Danish immigrant who had worked for a time in Eyrarbakki on the southern coast of Iceland before arriving in Milwaukee in 1856, wrote letters to Iceland describing his new home. His reports of the plentiful life in Wisconsin were circulated among his Icelandic friends. In particular, Wickmann's accounts of the abundance of coffee, of which Icelanders were especially fond, proved irresistible. In 1870 more Icelanders left for Milwaukee, eventually settling on Washington Island in Lake Michigan, just off the Green Bay peninsula.
In 1874 a group of Icelandic immigrants proposed a settlement in Alaska, which they felt would provide a climate and terrain similar to that of Iceland. Jón Ólafsson went so far as to meet with President Ulysses S. Grant to secure Alaskan land for a massive Icelandic settlement. They managed to convince the U.S. government to assist them in visiting the proposed Alaskan site. Many Icelanders (and several of the U.S. governmental representatives) apparently lost interest in the project because of the inhospitable Alaskan climate and terrain, and plans for the new colony were abandoned.
In the mid-1870s the United States suffered an economic depression, and jobs were scarce. For newly arrived Icelanders who knew little if any English, employment was even harder to find. Many men took laboring jobs as unskilled factory workers and woodcutters in various places or as dockworkers in Milwaukee when they first arrived. Preparing to start farms, these early immigrants built up capital and learned farming techniques suitable for their new land. Their communities became largely agricultural or related to the fishing industry; drawing from their customary lifestyle in their home country, they thus maintained their ties to their Icelandic heritage.
By 1878 severe weather conditions, outbreaks of smallpox, and religious disputes had forced more than one hundred Icelanders from the Canadian colony of New Iceland to relocate south to the United States, where they joined more recent Icelandic immigrants in the northeastern section of the Dakota Territory. With the help of more established Norwegian and German immigrant groups, they formed what later became the largest Icelandic community in America. Whereas the first generation were mostly farmers and laborers, second- and third-generation Icelanders were drawn into other fields of employment, including journalism, academia, and politics. A large group of Icelandic Americans also settled in the Puget Sound, predominantly in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, to work in the fishing and boat-building industries.
By 1900 new immigration from Iceland had almost completely ceased. It is estimated that about 5,000 Icelanders had taken up residency in the United States by 1910. The exact number is difficult to determine, because until 1930 the U.S. Census, unlike the census in Canada, did not differentiate between Icelanders and Danes, sometimes going as far to list them all as Northern Europeans. In 1910, however, the census did report that 5,105 U.S. residents had grown up in a home where Icelandic was spoken. Not until after the end of World War II did Icelanders again immigrate to the United States in any substantial numbers. The post–World War II immigration wave was made up predominantly of war brides of American servicemen who had been stationed in Iceland.
Early-twentieth-century industrialization transformed the United States from an agrarian culture into an urban one, affecting traditionally agrarian-based Icelandic American communities. By the end of the century, new Icelandic immigration had shifted from rural to urban communities. In addition, by 1970 more than half of second- and third-generation Icelandic Americans had taken up residence in urban areas.
The 1990 U.S. Department of Commerce Census reported a total count of 40,529 Icelandic Americans and Icelandic nationals living in the United States. According to the American Community Survey estimates, by 2010 this number had increased to 51,234. The largest populations of Icelandic Americans can be found in California, Washington, Minnesota, and Utah, as well as North Dakota and Florida.
In the late twentieth century, Americans of Icelandic descent showed great interest in tracing their ancestors. Most amateur genealogists of Icelandic heritage were interested in the settlements in Winnipeg and Utah. Several websites began offering help with mapping Icelandic lines of descent. Islendingabok (The Book of Icelanders), although it dates from 1200, still serves as a valuable tool today in tracing ancestry.
Icelandic is the national language of Iceland, although many Icelanders also understand and speak both English and Danish. The country has no indigenous linguistic minorities. Icelandic is a Germanic language and a member of the Scandinavian language family. Two letters of the Icelandic alphabet resemble Old English: thorn (þ), pronounced like the th in thing, and eth (ð), pronounced like the th in them. The language is thought to have changed very little in the thousand years since the first Nordic settlers arrived on Iceland. Icelandic speakers still read and appreciate many songs and epic poems dating from the twelfth century in their original forms. The relative purity of the language is largely the result of Iceland's isolation as an island nation.
In 1959 the Althingi passed a bill barring the adoption of names not Icelandic in origin for public establishments, a reflection of the nation's pride in its language. Only one vote was cast in opposition to the bill. While some Icelandic Americans still speak Icelandic in their homes or community circles, most have assimilated into the larger American population through their jobs in urban centers.
Greetings and Popular Expressions Typical Icelandic greetings and expressions and their approximate pronunciations include the following: góðan dag (“gothan dag”)—good day; gott kvöld (“goht kwvold”)—good evening; Komið pér saelie? (“komith pearr sauleuh”)—How do you do?; Hallo. Hvaðer um að vera? (“hallo. kwath aer uem ath verra”)—Hi. What's going on?; Hvað heitir pú? (“kwath hayterr peu”)—What is your name?; Ég heiti … (“ag haete”)—My name is …; sjáumst (“syoymst”)—bye; góða nótt (“gotha noht”)—good night; Gleður mig að kynnast pér (“glathur may ad kednast pear”)—Glad to meet you; Já eða nei? (“yaah aytha nay”)—Yes or no?; Ég skil ekki (“ag skeel ahhki”)—I don't understand; Gleðileg jól (“glathelay yawl”)—Merry Christmas; and Gleðileg nyár (“glathelay nyarr”)—Happy New Year.
Iceland's language, customs, and historical background link it ethnically to Scandinavia, though Icelanders have always perceived themselves as having a distinct culture. The differences have seldom been clear to non-Icelanders, who have conflated the Icelandic culture with those of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.
The CIA World Factbook reported that in 2006, 80.7 percent of the population of Iceland belonged to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland; 2.5 percent were Roman Catholic; 7.6 percent attended institutions representing other indigenous religions, such as the Reykjavik Free Church and the Hafnarfjörður Free Church; and 9.2 percent were unaffiliated or unspecified. Early Icelandic immigrants to North America did not remain dogmatically Lutheran. They were happy to be relieved of the heavy tax burden the Icelandic church imposed. Some of the early Icelandic immigrants who settled in Utah rejected Lutheranism altogether and embraced Mormonism. Churches continued to fill important social, spiritual, and community functions for Icelanders as they established settlements in their new land, however. Two early immigrants, Pall Thorlaksson and Jon Bjarnason, were leaders among Icelandic Lutherans in North America. Both men trained in the ministry, but they represented different philosophies, and this led to a temporary split in the Icelandic American Lutheran Church.
As Icelandic immigrants assimilated into the general American culture, some branched into subsects of Lutheranism. In the 1880s the Unitarian movement drew a number of Icelanders, and the competition strengthened the commitment of the remaining Lutherans. The Icelandic Evangelical Lutheran Synod of America was established in 1885. In 1942 the synod was absorbed into the United Lutheran Church of America, which became part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in 1988.
Icelandic Americans who have remained in the Lutheran Church have continued the practice of christening newborns as part of a community, if not spiritual, expression of welcome. Christenings follow the principles set down by the Lutheran Church of Iceland: the parents of the child choose godparents, and the baby is brought to the christening font,
usually at the age of two or three months. A celebration follows. Christening gowns are treasured items, often handed down through the generations.
CULTURE AND ASSIMILATION
Iceland's language, customs, and historical background link it ethnically to Scandinavia, though Icelanders have always perceived themselves as having a distinct culture. The differences have seldom been clear to non-Icelanders, who have conflated the Icelandic culture with those of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Few studies in English have concentrated on Icelanders, and many reference books have omitted them altogether from general accounts of ethnic or national cultural variations.
Icelandic immigrants have eagerly adopted new customs in the United States, learning English, holding public office, and integrating into the general culture. At the same time they have retained a strong sense of ethnic pride, as evidenced by the large number of Icelandic American organizations that have been established throughout the United States since the founding of the Icelandic National League in 1919. The league promotes Icelandic culture, customs, and traditions. It spans both Canada and the United States, with U.S. chapters in Washington D.C., New York, Illinois, and Minnesota. Near the end of the twentieth century, widespread attention to multiculturalism spurred many Icelandic Americans to reclaim their heritage.
Traditions and Customs Like other Scandinavians, Icelanders take great delight in stories of trolls, elves, and fairies. Fairies and elves are said to exist everywhere, beneath rocks and mushrooms. Often, good luck is attributed to the work of elves. In contrast, prior to the twentieth century, trolls were always associated with danger. Icelandic folklore is still cherished as a cultural treasure.
Icelandic sagas are also a highly prized literary tradition and are admired throughout the world. Consisting of medieval mythology, the sagas describe events involving the Norse and Celtic inhabitants of Iceland from the tenth and eleventh centuries, focusing on genealogy, family history, and the conquests of early Norse generations. Beginning as oral folktales, the sagas are thought to have been written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Icelandic Saga Database (www.sagadb.org ) digitally publishes sagas translated into English.
In earlier times Tuesday was a day on which meat was eaten, a custom handed down from Iceland's Catholic days. Some Icelanders (often children and servants) played a game called ad sitja i fastunni (“to sit in the fast”). It consisted of wordplay in which common terms for meat, drippings, and gravy were replaced by other words. Children tried to see if they could get through the entire day without being tricked into using the usual language for meats, even as they tried to get others to slip into saying the forbidden words. This practice has slipped into obscurity in Icelandic American households.
Cuisine Typical Icelandic fare includes many types of fish (including shark and skate, particularly on special occasions), lamb, and dark breads. The many variations of basic recipes suggest regional as well as individual differences. Women have traditionally done the cooking; each family treasures its own recipes, and each claims that its mother and grandmother produced the finest version. Icelandic Americans bring many of these traditional foods to summer festivals and Christmas feasts. A prevalent one is vinarterta (which translates as “Vienna Cake”), a layered cake made with cardamom, cinnamon, and ground, boiled prunes and served with whipped cream during the winter holidays and at weddings.
Icelandic brown bread, made with molasses and wheat germ, differs from Icelandic black bread, which contains rye. Both are staples of the diet. Icelandic pancakes, or ponnukokur, are similar to the flat, crêpelike Swedish pancakes. They are savory and are served with meat fillings. A flatbroud, or rye pancake, is another traditional food. Pastries include kleinur, Icelandic donuts made with sour cream, buttermilk, vanilla, and nutmeg; and Astarbollur, raisin donut balls rolled in granulated sugar and cinnamon.
Seasonal variation is common. Traditional foods associated with the autumn slaughtering season and the limited methods for preserving meat in earlier times include dried fish (hardfiskur); blood pudding (slatur); and smoked lamb (hangikjot). Eating Icelandic fruitcake at Christmas is a special holiday ritual.
Pylsa—Icelandic hot dogs—became popular in Iceland during the latter part of the twentieth century. Similar to American hot dogs but longer and thinner, they are eaten with ketchup, onions, mustard, and a mayonnaise-based topping called remoladi. Brennivin, Page 393 | Top of Articlethe Icelandic national drink, is a type of schnapps, with the consistency of syrup and without flavor. Often drunk with herring or shark, it is consumed in small quantities in much the same way as the Danish drink aquavit. Aside from holidays and special occasions, most Icelandic Americans have adopted the typical American diet in their process of assimilation.
Traditional Dress Traditional Icelandic women's dress includes several distinct garments, usually of fine material that has been embroidered. A sweater suit, or peysufot, was used for everyday wear well into the twentieth century, particularly in the countryside. The hair was covered with a faldur, secured with a scarf or scarves wrapped around the head. Other elements of this headdress included a skotthufa, or tail cap. The tail was made of numerous small strands of material. Just below its top, the tail was enfolded in a sleeve, richly ornamented in gold or silver threads. A more formal headdress was called a faldbuningur.
On special days women also wore an ornamental vest called an upphlutur (“upper part”), abundantly embroidered with gold thread. It was worn with a skirt and apron, both of which were sewn of very good material. While some higher-quality costumes were worn only for certain festivities, others served for Sundays and traveling.
Confirmation in the Lutheran Church required special dress and headgear. Children were confirmed at the age of fourteen. On this occasion girls wore a headdress called skautbuningur, which was a small white cap with a veil trailing down the back. A golden coronet was positioned at the forehead. The traditional white dress was called a kyrtill. Confirmation marked a girl's transition into adulthood, which included wearing adult attire, an exciting change. In writing of her confirmation day in her autobiography When I Was a Girl in Iceland (1919), Holmfridur Arnadottir exclaimed, “How grand, that from that day I should be dressed as the grownup women!” After confirmation a woman wore a black skirt appliqued with velvet and a bodice embroidered in silver thread. Both younger and older women wore a special belt. The belt for the older woman was embroidered and had a buckle of filigree, while that of the young girl was completely handmade of filigree.
Icelandic Americans' assimilation into popular culture has extended to their dress habits. They may wear traditional dress during religious ceremonies or on certain holidays, but overall they wear the same clothing as other Americans.
Dances and Songs Icelanders are fond of music and poetry. Their national anthem, originally a hymn written in 1874 for the millennial celebration of Iceland's first settlement, is called “Ó Guð vors lands” (“Our Country's God”) and expresses a national sentiment of submission to God. The final lines defer to a deity who can offer guidance: “O, prosper our people, diminish our tears / And guide, in
Thy wisdom, through life!” It is sung at the opening of state and national events. It was authored by Matthias Jochumsson (1835–1920), a clergyman who was also a journalist, a dramatist, and the national poet. Included among his other work are translations into Icelandic of Shakespearean tragedies.
Choral singing is among the most popular of Iceland's arts. Icelandic settlers cultivated traditional songs on the American frontier in all areas of existence—religious, social, and domestic. While no longer practiced in everyday life, choral singing is still a popular tradition during festivals and holidays. Particularly at Christmas, Icelanders participate in choirs and bands. Iceland's most prominent musical genre is the rimur, an epic song form that dates back to the thirteenth century. Because the Icelandic language has changed little since that time, some of the oldest songs are still performed and enjoyed in their original form.
The Christmas and New Year's holidays are marked by joyous singing and dancing around bonfires. Some celebrants dress up as elves. In her autobiography Arnadottir describes Twelfth Night dances, when white and black fairies “with all kinds of headdresses” come down from high cliffs carrying torches. A procession of celebrants parade to a bonfire, where the fairies sing and dance in a circle and recite poetry. When the bonfire has burned out, everyone moves to a dance hall, where they continue dancing. In general these traditional songs and dances are reserved for religious holidays and special cultural occasions.
Holidays Icelandic Americans continued to celebrate Icelandic holidays well after they settled into Americanized routines. Early immigrants commemorated August 2, 1874, a date significant on two counts: on the day of the millennium of Iceland's first settlement, the Danish king granted the country its autonomy. June 17, the day on which Iceland became a republic in 1944, later became the major holiday observed by Icelandic immigrants.
Iceland's holidays are typical of those celebrated in other Western, Christian nations, although with some differences. The Christmas season lasts several days and is traditionally celebrated with bonfires, dancing, and stories of elves and trolls.
On New Year's Eve people customarily invited elves into their home. Lights, or candles, were lit throughout the house in order to drive out the shadows. The mistress of the house walked around the outside of the house three times, chanting an invitation to the elves to come, stay, or go. At least one light remained burning throughout the night. Also on New Year's Eve, the pantry window was left open and a pot was placed on the pantry floor in an attempt to capture hoarfrost (the ephemeral frozen dew that forms a white coating on surfaces). The mistress of the house remained in the pantry all night. In the morning a cover was placed over the pot to keep the hoarfrost in, known as the “pantry drift.” Capturing it in this way was thought to bring prosperity to the household. While Icelandic Americans still observe these holidays, celebrations have come to resemble traditional American ones, both in the church and in homes and communities.
Twelfth Night, celebrated twelve days after Christmas on January 5, is often called the “Great Night of Dreams” in Iceland. This refers to the night when the Kings of the Orient are thought to have dreamed of the birth of Jesus. In some parts of Iceland, Twelfth Night was referred to as “The Old Christmas” or “The Old Christmas Eve.” Twelfth Day is celebrated on January 6 with bonfires and dancing.
Lent traditionally takes place during the six-week period before Easter Sunday, and in Iceland the first three days are filled with festive games. Lenten (or Shrove) Monday is known in Icelandic as Bolludagur (“the day of muffins” or “bun day”) or Flengingardagur(“the day of whipping”). The holiday is believed to have been transported to Iceland by Danish and Norwegian bakers who immigrated to Iceland in the late nineteenth century. The day begins with early risers “beating” those who are still in bed with small whips or wands that the children have made of colored paper. Those who are whipped provide the children with a bun or muffin. The whipping is done mainly by the children, and is done good-naturedly. Bolludagur is usually a school holiday, allowing for family visits to friends and neighbors, who invariably provide muffins served with coffee. In the United States the Icelandic traditions surrounding Lent have faded over time.
Ash Wednesday, or Oskudagur, was celebrated by playing a teasing game related to the tradition of repentance and involving ashes or stones. On the days prior to Ash Wednesday, women and girls made small bags into which ashes or small stones were placed. Constructed with drawstrings, the bags were fastened to people's backs with pins. Bags containing ashes were intended for men and boys; bags with stones were for women and girls. (Stones likely symbolized the old punishment of tying bags of stones around the necks of adulterous women in order to drown them.) People carried the bags a certain distance, sometimes three steps or across three thresholds. As many as thirty bags might be attached to back of a person's clothing. Much like the traditions surrounding Lent and other religious holidays, these practices have all but vanished in Iceland, and the holiday is now similar to American Halloween in that young children dress up in costumes and go door to door collecting candy.
Like people in other Nordic countries, Icelanders view the first day of summer as the second most significant holiday of the year (Christmas being the first). As early as 1545, gifts were exchanged among family members on this holiday, and food played a prominent role in the festivities. Although food was scarce after the long winter, Icelanders saved all they could so they could serve their best food and drink during First Day of Summer festivals. Often the amount of food saved indicated the degree of a family's wealth. In the western fjords many Icelanders stored food in a special barrel during the autumn that was not to be opened until the following summer. Special summer-day cakes made of rye were served to each person. The large cakes measured one foot in diameter and were three-quarters of an inch thick. Each cake was topped with one day's portion of food, which included hangiket, or butter; lundabaggar, or flanks (sheep's internal organs boiled and then soaked in whey); hard fish; halibut fins; and the like.
First Day of Summer celebrations included a religious service with special hymns and a sermon, after which children played such games as blind man's bluff. The hard winter over, Icelanders stayed outdoors for most of the day, celebrating the coming of long days filled with sunlight. Prior to 1900 the First Day of Summer was a day for socializing among Page 395 | Top of Articlefamily and friends, eating, and marking the end of winter. Public performances were gradually integrated into the holiday. Young people in particular began to give speeches and recite poetry. Sports, singing, and dancing became important activities, as well as plays and other theatrical productions. While these practices may be revived at traditional celebrations of Iceland's heritage, they are not common practices among Icelandic American families.
Two holidays unique to Iceland are Krossmessa (“Crossmas”) and St. Thorlak's Day, both popular during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Krossmessa, observed on May 14, was the day when domestic servants moved on to new jobs. Servants were usually hired for a one-year period, although many stayed with their employers for several years before moving on. St. Thorlak's Day was celebrated on December 23 to honor Thorlak Thorhalli, who became the bishop of Skalholt in 1177. On this day the Christmas hangiket, or smoked mutton, is cooked, clothes are washed, and the house is cleaned. Both of these holidays fell into obscurity in Iceland during the early twentieth century and are not usually observed by Icelandic Americans.
The 1960s brought the revival of another holiday specific to Iceland, an ancient pagan festival called the Thorrablot. It was originally observed in mid-winter, when sacrifices to the Norse god Thorri were made. The holiday predates Christian Iceland and died out when Christianity was adopted. It regained popularity in 1873 when revived by Icelandic students in Copenhagen and in 1881 when a group of archaeologists in Reykjavik toasted each other using Viking horns on that day. Icelandic Americans now celebrate the holiday with festivals in several major cities, including Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., as well as in Spanish Fork, Utah. This holiday, along with the cultural associations that promote it, serves to bring the Icelandic American community together.
Another major festival, observed by Icelandic immigrants in North Dakota, is called the Deuce of August. Icelanders congregate in Mountain, North Dakota, on the first weekend before the first Monday in August to celebrate Iceland's constitution, originally ratified on August 2, 1874. The oldest ethnic festival in North Dakota, the Deuce of August marked its 114th annual celebration in 2013. The festival brings together immigrants and visitors alike to celebrate Icelandic culture and heritage.
Health Issues Icelanders are known for their generally good physical health. The average life expectancy in Iceland is 80.9 years for women and 75.7 years for men. There do not appear to be medical conditions specific to Icelandic Americans. As Icelandic Americans change their diets and living habits to assimilate into American culture, their general health may vary with current trends of the general population.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY LIFE
The 1992 Icelandic census showed that the most common family configuration was two parents and a child. This trend toward small family units mirrors those in other Western nations and is reflected in the size of Icelandic American families. Icelanders show strong familial and ethnic identification.
Gender Roles Iceland is largely egalitarian and has an economy more evenly distributed by gender than many other countries. The country is politically progressive, with a woman president from 1980 to 1996 and a woman prime minister from 2009 to 2013. Icelandic American women have joined all aspects of the American workforce, gaining the same status as men in their respective fields.
Education Since the end of the eighteenth century, Iceland has provided education for all its citizens, and literacy among Icelanders has been universal. In 1907 school attendance in Iceland was made obligatory for all children between the ages of ten and fourteen. Children younger than ten years of age were usually taught at home. In 1946 the age for compulsory attendance was extended, and by the 1990s, the law covered all children between the ages of seven and seventeen. A theological seminary, the first institution of higher learning in Iceland, was founded in 1847. A medical school followed in 1876 and a school of law in 1908. In 1911 all three merged and became the University of Iceland. Later a fourth division was added, the Faculty of Philosophy, which offers study in philology, history, and literature.
Immigrant Icelanders in the Dakota Territory set up their first school district in 1881, and more Page 396 | Top of Articledistricts soon followed. The value Icelanders placed on education on the American frontier had been instilled in them in their native land. With an unbroken literary history dating from the thirteenth century, the new immigrants continued to cherish literary activity. Books were among the household goods most brought with them to the United States. Many had books sent to them from Iceland once they were settled in their new homes. New immigrant communities organized reading circles and quickly established newspapers. Icelandic immigrants' focus on education is one of the strongest factors contributing to their high rate of assimilation into the American workforce. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates for 2009–2011, 95 percent of Icelandic Americans have a high school diploma or the equivalent, 42 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher, and 16 percent have a graduate or professional degree.
Courtship and Weddings The Islendingabok has always been considered a viable resource for Icelanders to ensure that they were not dating or marrying their relatives—a concern in such a small country. Icelandic Americans are less affected by this phenomenon as they assimilate more fully into the larger American society. Icelandic weddings generally follow the forms established by the Icelandic Lutheran Church. When they marry, women do not change their names.
The institution of marriage does not carry the same importance for Icelanders as it does for Americans. As a result, in Iceland women have never been stigmatized for giving birth outside of marriage. The rate of births by unmarried mothers has varied from 13 percent in the nineteenth century to 36 percent in 1977. One result of single parenthood is that many women in Iceland work fewer hours outside of the home than men. Coupled with the already lower pay scales for women, this further limits single mothers' income levels.
Family Names The Icelandic system of handing down family names is unique in the region and the world. Generally it observes the ancient patriarchal tradition of using the father's first name as a last name. For example, Leifur Eiriksson's name indicates that he is the son of Eirik. The last name of Leifur's son would be Leifursson—son of Leifur. Maria, the daughter of Hermann Jakobsson, would be called Maria Hermannsdottir. After her marriage to Haraldur Jonsson, her name would not change, although her daughter Margret would be known as Margret Haraldursdottir. Family members living in the same household, therefore, do not share a common family name. Directories in Iceland are organized alphabetically by first names.
Legislation dating from 1925 regulates Icelandic names and preserves the Icelandic naming tradition. Members of the clergy are vested with veto power over names of infants. The Faculty of Arts at the University of Iceland serves as the court of appeal. A 1958 case brought before the faculty by a German immigrant upheld the Icelandic tradition. Upon becoming a citizen of Iceland, the man changed his name from Lorenz to the Icelandic Larus. When his son was born, however, he wanted his son to be known as Lorenz. The pastor of his church refused to conduct the christening, and the case went to the Faculty of Arts, which supported the minister. The Icelandic naming tradition is still practiced by some Icelandic immigrants in the United States, although the high rate of absorption into the general population and the adoption of American Lutheran religions have lessened the degree to which it is observed.
Relations with Other Americans Because of the relatively small numbers of Icelanders in the United States, Icelandic immigrants have always interacted with those of other national backgrounds. As a matter of survival, early immigrants were eager to learn from the experiences of other immigrants, particularly the Norwegians, with whom they felt a kinship. In areas inhabited by few other persons of Icelandic descent, Icelanders gladly worked with Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Finns to develop communities. Although Icelandic American societies exist throughout the United States and Canada, many Icelanders join Scandinavian clubs. Icelandic Americans are still active in these clubs and organizations as a means of preserving their cultural heritage, but as they have assimilated, they have easily become part of broader communities.
EMPLOYMENT AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
The economic base of modern Iceland lies in the fishing industry: fish and fish products account for more than 70 percent of the country's exports. The waters around Iceland are rich fishing grounds. The Gulf Stream and cold nutrient currents of the Arctic meet at the continental shelf that surrounds the island. These conditions are favorable for many kinds of marine life. Icelandic fishing techniques, using the most up-to-date computers and other technologies, are among most innovative and advanced in the world. Sheep and dairy cattle are the main livestock in Iceland; agricultural land is used mostly for growing grass to feed the livestock. Aluminum accounts for about 11 percent of the country's exports. Iceland imports almost all of its consumer items.
Their agricultural, building, and fishing skills stood Icelandic immigrants to North America in good stead. In modern times the loss of the agrarian economic base in the United States, combined with the high rate of education among Icelandic Americans, has led them to seek jobs in business, education, medicine, entertainment, the arts, and a variety of other white-collar fields.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
Iceland is a representative democratic republic with a multiparty system, a parliament, and an elected president who appoints a prime minister. The Althingi Page 397 | Top of Article(parliament)—the legislative body—has sixty-three members who are elected by popular vote. They serve for terms of four years, as do the president and prime minister. There are no term limits. Any eligible voter can run for a seat in the Althingi, except the president and judges of the Supreme Court. Following the election of each new parliament, the president calls together the leaders of the political parties for discussions, and together they choose a cabinet made up of members of parliament. Cabinet ministers remain in power until the next general election.
The three largest political parties in Iceland are the Independence Party, the Progressive Party, and the Social Democratic Alliance. Together, these parties represented 73 percent of the vote in the 1991 elections. The remaining 27 percent of the vote was divided among the People's Alliance, the Citizens/Liberal Party, and others. In 1983 feminists formed a national political party known as the Women's List that won some parliamentary elections and, in 1987, claimed six seats in the Althingi and 10.1 percent of the total vote. In 1991, however, the Women's List lost ground, winning five parliamentary seats with 8.3 percent of the vote, and in 1998 the party split, some members merging with the People's Alliance and the National Awakening to form the Social Democratic Alliance, and others joining the Left-Green Movement.
Icelandic Americans have adapted easily to the system of democracy practiced in the United States. A number of Icelandic Americans have entered local and state politics. In North Dakota alone, there have been several state attorneys general, state supreme court judges, and state legislators of Icelandic heritage.
Military Service Iceland entered into a defense agreement with the United States in 1951, and it does not maintain its own army or navy. The Icelandic Defense Force, located at the Keflavik base, is maintained by members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, as well as military personnel from the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark. Icelandic civilians also work at the base. By the late 1990s twenty-five different units of various sizes were attached to the Icelandic Defense Force. The base published an online newsletter in the late 1990s called the White Falconline and also maintained a webpage. U.S. forces left the Keflavik base in 2006, turning it over to the Icelandic Defense Agency, which closed it in 2011. While Iceland does maintain a coast guard that patrols the country's shores and airspace, they have no standing army, although they do serve with N.A.T.O. forces.
Art Holger Cahill (1887–1960) was born in Iceland and immigrated to North Dakota as a homesteader with his family around the turn of the twentieth century. He served as the director for the Federal Art Project during Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal era of the Great Depression. In the early 1930s he was acting director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He also authored two books: Look South to the Polar Star (1947) and The Shadow of My Hand (1956).
The abstract painter Nina Tryggvadottir (1913–1968) made a name for herself as an Icelandic artist in the United States. She immigrated to New York in 1942 and her work was reviewed favorably in the influential publication Art News. Tryggvadottir also designed scenery and costumes. Despite a promising career, Tryggvadottir was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and accused of being a Communist sympathizer. She is best known for the nature abstractions she produced between 1957 and 1967.
Another notable Icelandic American in the art world was H. Harvard Arnason (1909–1986), an art historian who served as the director of Minneapolis's Walker Art Center from 1951 to 1961. Arnason also served as vice president for art administration at the Guggenheim Foundation during the 1960s and authored A History of Modern Art (1968). Charles Gustav Thorson (1890–1966), born in Canada with Icelandic ancestry, lived in California in the 1930s and 1940s and worked in animation at Walt Disney Studios and Warner Brothers. He is credited as the creator of early Bugs Bunny prototypes and developed the characters of Snow White and Elmer Fudd.
Broadcasting Dori Monson (1961–), a radio producer, broadcaster, and sports reporter of Icelandic descent, was born in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington and served as a radio announcer for the school's football team, the Washington Huskies. In 1995 he began hosting his own politically oriented talk radio show, The Dori Monson Show, on KIRO-FM radio. Since 2002 he has hosted Hawk Talk on Seattle Seahawks Radio for the city's National Football League team.
Film Actor Gunnar Hansen (1947–) is an Icelandic American immigrant best known for his role as Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). His family moved from Reykjavik to Maine when he was five years old and later relocated to Texas, where he attended the University of Texas at Austin. He has acted in more than twenty films, taught at the collegiate level, and authored Islands at the Edge of Time: A Journey to America's Barrier Islands (1996).
Leslie Stefanson (1971–) is an Icelandic American actress born in Fargo, North Dakota. Known for her roles in The General's Daughter (1999), Unbreakable (2000), and The Hunted (2003), Stefanson is also an accomplished sculptor.
Journalism Jon Olafsson (1850–1916) served as founding editor of the first Icelandic newspaper in North America, the Heimskringla. The paper is named after medieval Icelandic epic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson's historical and mythological book about Norwegian kings (heimer translates as “the world” Page 398 | Top of Articleand kringla as “globe”). Founded in September 1886 in Winnepeg, the paper was published completely in Icelandic with the exception of some advertisements written wholly or partially in English. Olafsson left the paper in the 1890s and worked as a librarian in Chicago before returning to Iceland in 1897. Another journalist of Icelandic descent, Kristjan Valdimar “Val” Bjornson (1906–1987), was part-owner of the newspaper the Minneota Mascot and served as associate editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Val Bjornson Icelandic Exchange Scholarship between his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Iceland commemorates his work.
Literature Poet Helga Steinvor Baldvinsdottir (1858–1941) wrote poetry in Iceland before she immigrated with her family to Canada. Under the pen name Undma Undina, she published her work in the Heimskringla and other Icelandic American periodicals and translated others' works from English to Icelandic. Her only complete volume of verse appeared posthumously in Iceland in 1952. She spent the last decade of her life in Washington State.
Stephan G. Stephanson (1853–1927) was an Icelandic American poet who immigrated to Wisconsin in 1873 and published a volume of poetry called Andvökur (1909; Sleepless Nights). He later moved to Canada, and he returned to Iceland in his mid-sixties. Kristjan Niels Julius (1860–1936), an Icelandic satirical poet, lived in Minnesota and North Dakota. Richard Beck (1897–1980) was an Icelandic American poet and critical author who wrote History of Icelandic Poets: 1800–1940 (1950). Icelandic American poet and essayist Bill Holm (1943–2009) wrote twelve books over the course of his life. He split his time between Minnesota, where he taught literature and poetry at Southwest Minnesota State University, and Iceland.
Music Peter Steele, born Peter Thomas Ratajczyk (1962–2010), was an American rock musician with Icelandic heritage on his mother's side. Born in Brooklyn, he sang and played guitar and bass in a series of heavy metal bands, including Type O Negative, Carnivore, and Fallout. In 1995 he appeared as a centerfold model in Playgirl magazine. Steele died of heart failure in 2010 at age forty-eight.
Science and Technology Icelandic immigrant Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879–1962) was educated in North Dakota and Iowa before attending and later teaching at Harvard University. He became known for his archaeological work and Arctic explorations. Chester Hjortur Thordarson (1867–1945) immigrated to the United States in 1873, founding a manufacturing company in Chicago and making a name for himself as an inventor and entrepreneur in the field of electricity. He designed the first million-volt transformer, which won a gold medal at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.
Sports Rob Morris (1975–) is an Icelandic American born in Nampa, Idaho, and raised in the Mormon faith. He attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he was named a First Team All-American by the Associated Press. From 2000 to 2008 he played football as a linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts and was a starter in the 2006 Super Bowl. His career ended after a serious knee injury.
A series of volumes in Icelandic and Norse studies begun in 1908 as a yearly publication, the books are now published less regularly. Since 2003 works have been published electronically by Cornell University Library.
Patrick J. Stevens, Managing Editor
Cornell University, Kroch Library
Willard J. Fiske Islandic Collection
Ithaca, New York 14853
Phone: (607) 255-3530
ORGANIZATIONS AND ASSOCIATIONS
The American-Scandinavian Foundation/Scandinavia House
This foundation promotes relations between the United States and the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden through educational and cultural exchange.
58 Park Avenue
New York, New York 10016
Phone: (212) 779-3587
Icelandic American Chamber of Commerce (IACC)
Founded in 1986, the Icelandic American Chamber of Commerce has eighty members. It is a multinational organization that meets several times a year and publishes a monthly newsletter.
Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson, Chairman
c/o Consulate General of Iceland
800 Third Avenue, 36th Floor
New York, New York 10022
Phone: (212) 593-2700
Fax: (212) 593-6269
The Icelandic Association of Washington, D.C.
This association brings Icelandic Americans living in the greater Washington, D.C., area together for cultural meetings and events, including a Thorrablot (Thorri Banquet), summer picnic, holiday bazaar, and Independence Day celebration.
Anna Bjarnadottir Wahoske, President
P.O. Box 1616
Woodbridge, Virginia 22195
Phone: (325) 370-3324
The Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle
A nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote Icelandic heritage, culture, and language and to strengthen relationships within the Icelandic American community.
Sonna Somerville Ghilarducci, President
P.O. Box 70102
Seattle, Washington 98127
Icelandic National League of North America
Formed in 1919, the league promotes Icelandic culture, customs, and traditions. The organization spans both Canada and the United States, with U.S. chapters in Washington, D.C., New York, Illinois, Washington, and Minnesota.
103-94 1st Avenue
Gimli, Manitoba ROC 1B1 Canada
Phone: (204) 642-5897
Fax: (204) 642-9382
A website that promotes Icelandic heritage, genealogy, and travel for Icelanders and Icelandic American immigrants. The site has links to other Icelandic clubs and organizations around the United States and Canada.
Hjálmar Stefán Brynjólfsson, Website Manager
MUSEUMS AND RESEARCH CENTERS
Fiske Icelandic Collection
A division of the Rare Manuscript Collections in the Kroch Library at Cornell University. Holdings include books, journals, and other serial literature on Islandica with an emphasis on Icelandic language, literature, and history.
Level 2B, Carl A. Kroch Library
Ithaca, New York 14853
Phone: (607) 255-3530
Fax: (607) 255-9524
Nordic Heritage Museum
The Nordic immigrants (Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic Americans) of Seattle are represented in this museum founded in 1980.
3014 NW 67th Street
Seattle, Washington 98117
Phone: (206) 789-5707
SOURCES FOR ADDITIONAL STUDY
Arnason, David, and Michael Olito. The Icelanders. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Turnstone Press, 1981.
Bjornson, Valdimar. “Icelanders in the United States.” Scandinavian Review 64 (1976): 39–41.
Bjornsson, Arni. Icelandic Feasts and Holidays: Celebrations, Past and Present. Trans. May and Hallberg Hallmundson. Reykjavik: Iceland Review History Series, 1980.
Houser, George J. Pioneer Icelandic Pastor: The Life of the Reverend Paul Thorlaksson. Ed. Paul A. Sigurdson. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Manitoba Historical Society, 1990.
Jonsson, Hjorleifur Rafn. “Trolls, Chiefs and Children: Changing Perspectives on an Icelandic Christmas Myth.” Nord Nytt: Nordisk Tidsskrift for Folkelivsforskning 41 (1990): 55–63.
Karlsson, Gunnar. The History of Iceland. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Krakauer, Jon, and David Roberts. Iceland: Land of the Sagas. New York: Villard Publishing, 1998.
Walters, Thorstina Jackson. Modern Sagas: The Story of Icelanders in North America. Fargo, ND: Institute for Regional Studies, 1953.
Wolf, Kirsten. Writings by Western Icelandic Women. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1996.