OK, the fireworks started going off even before Christmas. Nevertheless, nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle of explosion that marked the new year 2007, a celebration which, by the way, only just seems to have ended. For now, the war is over. Major combat operations in the skies of Reykjavik have come to an end. Of course, I would not be surprised if the next few weeks bring the last of the unexploded bombs out of hiding.
There is something about the darkness that compels you to light up the sky with whatever is available. On some nights, especially the coldest ones, the Aurora Borealis does the trick naturally. But in late December, it is fireworks. From small children to responsible adults, every house and every neighborhood consider it their duty to out-do the people down the street. It is not at all uncommon for people to spend several months’ salary, or the equivalent of a small car, to make the sky above your house explode for a few hours. Even the dogs, at least the ones not huddling in the closet for fear of impending nuclear holocaust can be seen in their front yards with sparklers hanging out of their mouths.
The only lull in the insanity comes late in the evening when Icelanders gather around their televisions to appreciate a tradition that goes back thirty years. For an hour the state-run TV station shows a comedy program poking fun at everything Icelandic, from major news stories to notorious celebrities. The only topic that seems off-limits is, thankfully, Björk. But even I, an outsider with only a limited knowledge of Icelandic, was able to laugh at much of what all around me found so funny. Some of it was in English, and all of it was funny. Icelanders are adept at self-criticism. They know that you can’t take everything so seriously, and that the best way to forge a strong national identity is to recognize the humor in everything that you are proud of. Others (mm hmm) could benefit from their example.
As soon as the show ends, around 11:30, the real show begins outside. It is almost impossible to hear yourself scream, when bombs are going off above, around, and below you. Yes, accidents do happen, some fingers may get blown off, but it is all worth it. It is impossible not to get euphoric at this display of explosive power, an undying remnant of this country’s viking past. Icelandic fireworks, with pictures of blond, helmeted men with beards, are called “cakes” for a reason: it is the ONLY way to celebrate. And when the cakes run out, as they did at a friend’s house, some emergency flares were found in a closet, lighting up the world in a slow red drama that must have looked even more amazing from far away.
But it doesn’t matter where in Reykjavik you are. Every neighborhood is as indulgent as the next. The first time I experienced Iceland, for the big millennium new year in 2000, I was amazed, knowing that the millennium merited such a grand celebration. What I saw this year proved only that it gets bigger and bigger every year. I knew it when I left my house at five in the evening and was knocked in the face by the pungent smell of exploded gunpowder. I knew it when driving down the street in the following week I needed to wait while one last cake was set off in the intersection down the street. I knew it when even though I did not have a vantage point over the whole city, it was the most impressive display I have ever seen.