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Why Do People From Iceland Light Candles on New Year’s Eve?

Iceland is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic Ocean with the fewest people in Europe. Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and largest city, is home to more than 65% of the country’s population. It is the only part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that rises above sea level, and its central volcanic plateau erupts almost constantly. The interior of the country is characterized by a plateau with sand and lava fields, mountains, and glaciers, and many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Despite its high latitude just out, Iceland has a temperate climate because of the Gulf Stream. While summers are cool due to the high latitude and marine influence most of the islands have a polar climate. Iceland is known for a lot of things including its quirky traditions. But did you know why they light candles?

Every New Year’s Eve in Iceland, the people light candles for the huldufólk or hidden elves. This tradition is meant to assist the elves in finding a new home for the year.

What are Huldufólks?

Elves are known as huldufólk, or hidden people, in Icelandic and Faroese folklore. They are supernatural beings who exist in the physical world. They resemble humans in appearance and behavior, but they live in a different world. They can make themselves visible at any time.

Hidden people are said to be large in build, their clothes are all gray, and their hair black, their dwellings are in mounds, and they are also called Elves, this is according to Faroese folk tales. Some Icelandic folk tales warn against throwing stones because they may hit the hidden people accidentally. Books from mainland Europe arrived in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, and they may have influenced folktales about elves.
However, there is some evidence that the two terms have come to be understood as referring to two distinct groups of supernatural beings in modern Iceland. Katrin Sontag discovered that some people do not distinguish between elves and hidden people, while others do. According to a 2006 survey, about 54% of respondents could not distinguish the difference between elves and hidden people, whereas 20% did, and the remaining 26% were unsure. (Source: Mythus Fandom)

How Do the Icelanders Commemorate This Event?

New Year’s Eve, Thirteenth Night, Midsummer Night, and Christmas Night are four Icelandic holidays that are thought to have a special connection with hidden people. Elf bonfires are a common part of the Twelfth Night celebrations. 

Many Icelandic folktales tell stories of elves and hidden people invading Icelandic farmhouses during the Christmas season to throw wild parties. In Iceland, it is customary to clean the house before Christmas and to leave food for the huldufólk on Christmas Day to aid in their celebration.
The elves are said to move to new locations on New Year’s Eve, and Icelanders leave candles to help them find their way. Folklore says that if you sit at a crossroads on Midsummer Night, elves will try to seduce you with food and gifts and that there are grave consequences for succumbing to their offers, but great rewards for resisting. (Source: National Library of Medicine)

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