As long as there have been communities living in Iceland, there have been traditions of feasts and merrymaking. Christianity came to Iceland around the year 1000, just a few generations after settlers moved to the small island in the northern Atlantic. There were existing religious beliefs before then, however, most of which were replaced at that time by Christian holidays and customs.

The common thread between customs and belief systems was always the rich (and delicious) history of food-based traditions.

Three consecutive Icelandic holidays called Bolludagur, Sprengidagur and Öskudagur are great examples of long-standing, food-based customs that remain cherished celebrations in Iceland today. While the dates change each year, the three holidays are always scheduled the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the week that Lent begins. The 2021 dates for the celebrations are February the 15th through the 17th.

Keep reading to learn what these holidays mean for the Icelandic people plus how they’ve been celebrated for centuries. You’ll see commonalities with other pre-Lent celebrations from around the world, and even some surprising similarities to Halloween!

Bolludagur 2021

Bolludagur, or “Bun Day,” is the Monday before Lent. The day is marked by baking and enjoying freshly-baked sweet buns with cream.

So, why “Bun Day?”

As the tradition goes, children craft special colored wands on Bolludagur by gluing colorful strips of paper to the ends of sticks. Then, they wake their parents up (or get their attention throughout the day) by tapping them—often on the bum, or “buns”—with the wands and shouting, “Bun! Bun! Bun!”

The tradition of waking parents up this way is several centuries newer than the holiday itself, since the original purpose of Bolludagur was to enjoy traditional Icelandic breads as the Christian population approached Lent, a time requiring the tapering of indulgences and excess.

Sprengidagur 2021

Next on this list of pre-Lent holidays is Sprengidagur, which in 2021 falls on Tuesday, February 15th. Translated as “Explosion Day” or “White Tuesday,” traditional Icelandic salted meat and beans are consumed in a tremendous feast at dinner.

The most popular dish is the salted meat called “saltkjöt og baunir,” which is often accompanied with soups of vegetables and lentils. The seven weeks of Lent mean fasting (especially from meat), and so the Icelandic people enjoy this hearty meal on the eve of Ash Wednesday.

Öskudagur 2021

The final day of this three-day run of holidays is Öskudagur, which is also Ash Wednesday. This marks the first day of Lent, however Icelandic traditions around the holiday remain somewhat fanciful, which seems even more appropriate this year with proximity to Valentine’s Day, February 14th.

As the Öskudagur tradition goes, school-age girls and young women pin little bags filled with ash onto the backs of the boy they dote on—the game is to ensure that the boy doesn’t notice. Young boys do the same, but with small bags filled with pebbles instead.

More recently, Öskudagur has been compared to Halloween, since school children dress up in often-elaborate costumes and travel store-to-store singing as a petition for sweets and candy. It seems the holiday has been marked by many kinds of sweets, from crushes to candies, all in time to bid adieu to indulgences before the seven weeks of Lent.