The first Monday in August or last Monday in July is a bank holiday called frídagur verslunarmanna, or merchants’ Day off (or shop keepers' day off; official: Commerce Day). From the preceding Saturday all through the Monday is what is called verslunarmannahelgi – merchants’ weekend (shop keepers' weekend). This weekend is a definite highlight on the Icelandic summer calendar as it’s the biggest festival weekend of them all.
Inevitably, this weekend is also by far the biggest weekend for domestic travel, so expect loads of traffic wherever you go. If you’re in the Reykjavík area, almost no amount of planning will get you out of at least some traffic delays. The capital area usually empties of people over the weekend, while other towns, their hotels, guest houses, Airbnbs and camp grounds fill up with guests rushing to the many different festivals dotted around the country. Everyone should be able to find some type of gathering to their liking: there is something for families, something for sports enthusiasts, events catering to different tastes in music, fish or history themed events, and there’s even one for those who don’t want to go anywhere but still would like to do stuff (in Reykjavík), called Innipúkinn. And then there’s the largest of them all: Þjóðhátíð í Eyjum, or National Festival in the Islands, Þjóðhátíð for short.
Despite its name, the National Festival is not an official, national event. It is held in the Westman Islands, and has been since 1874 when the locals put on a party to celebrate 1000 years of settlement in Iceland. Official 1000 years of settlement celebrations actually took place at Þingvellir that year, with even the Danish king among attendees. The reason why the Westman Islanders decided to hold their own celebrations was due to bad weather keeping them from sailing to the mainland (which they lovingly call Norðurey). They’ve kept the tradition of hosting a party at this time of year ever since (they took a small break during and right after the volcanic eruption in 1973), and just kept the name. It has quite a ring to it, so why not?
A bit of info on : the Westman Islands are a cluster of 15 islands south of mainland Iceland. Only one of them is inhabited, and it’s called Heimaey, with ca. 4300 inhabitants. The name Westman Islands is often used to refer to Heimaey on its own.
As mentioned, Þjóðhátíð is the largest of the bank holiday festivals, with people coming from far and wide to attend the outdoor gigs and other events in the valley called Herjólfsdalur. Some guests stay in their own tents or rented ones in the white tent city down in the valley, while some manage to rent accommodation in town. Locals also attend, and being able to stay in your own house is a definite plus, as the valley and everything in it can get drenched quite easily, the Icelandic summer being what it is. Every year the festival gets a different musician to write and perform a new, official festival anthem, as it were, called þjóðhátíðarlag. This is considered quite an honour, and the songs often become popular in their own right. A highlight of Þjóðhátíð is he famous bonfire at the end of the weekend, with the accompanying sing-a-long, called Brekkusöngur, led by a musician on guitar (and sometimes accordion), plus the fireworks.
A little bit about brekkusöngur. The word literally means singing on a slope. Try to imagine yourself in your lopapeysa under the bright night sky along with hundreds or thousands of people, singing familiar tunes accompanied on the guitar by a famous, charismatic musician. It’s quite the experience. One musician commented that there is a thing called brekkusöngur in general and then there’s THE brekkusöngur, or brekkusöngurinn. You can sit down on any old slope with a group of people and a guitar and call it singing . But the Westman Islands during verslunarmannahelgin – that’s the authentic one.
Many of the events during verslunarmannahelgin require booking tickets, travel (boat and air only to the Westmans), as well as accommodation. If you’re reading this just before the weekend, we’re sorry to tell you this but you may be too late for some if not all.
But there are plenty of free festivities as well, so look up your corner of the country online and see what’s on offer!
Verslun = shop, trade
Manna = men, genitive case (possessive): mens’
Helgi = weekend
Verslunarmannahelgi = shop keepers’ / merchants’ weekend
Verslunarmannahelgin = that extra n is the definite article (the) for feminine nouns, which changes the meaning to the shop keepers' weekend
Úti = outside
Hátíð = special occasion, or fest(ival)
Útihátíð = a festival held outside
Þjóðhátíð = national festival
Þjóð = nation
Vestmannaeyjar = Westman Islands
Eyjar = islands; with a capital E, Eyjar refers only to the Westman Islands
Þjóðhátíð í Eyjum = national festival in the (Westman) Islands
Lag = song
Þjóðhátíðarlag = The song of the National Festival
Inni = inside
Púkinn = the demon
Innipúki = (here without the definite article) a term used to taunt or mock someone (mostly children) who want to stay inside as opposed to playing outside
Dalur = valley
Herjólfsdalur = valley of Herjólfur
Brekka = slope
Söngur = song, or singing
Brekkusöngur = singing which takes place on a slope
Brekkusöngurinn = 2 extra n at the end is the definite article (the) when dealing with a masculine noun
Norðurey = North island, the Westman Islanders' pet name for mainland Iceland
Heimaey = literally: Home Island, the only island in the Westman Islands which is inhabited