As societies around the world have been under orders to lockdown, practice social distancing, and self-quarantine, I can’t help but think that Icelanders are – literally - weathering such circumstances more easily than many others. This spring has been typical Iceland weather, with almost every day bringing a mix of rain, snow, sleet, and high winds; the sun makes its occasional guest appearance. In some respects, Icelanders are preconditioned to manage any degree of lockdown quite nicely since such is a staple of surviving North Atlantic winters. It’s practically in our DNA to hunker down and entertain ourselves indoors. Our ancestors did so, for centuries, with an evening tradition known as the “kvöldvaka.”
The kvöldvaka (which translates as “evening wake” – a bit of a misnomer) took place in the evening, when household members would work together on indoor chores in the baðstofa (main room of the traditional Icelandic farmhouse). It was a time for people to keep themselves preoccupied, especially in the dark winter months, with a member of the household reading aloud, from any available book, while others occupied themselves with knitting, spinning, tool-making, and various other tasks.
This time of the day also staged the area for moral teachings, lessons that eventually became imbedded into the moral fiber of Icelandic social order. The kvöldvaka was a time when Icelanders shared stories, sometimes in the form of long, epic poems from memory, that became a part of their collective identity and existence - tales of Nordic gods, trolls, heroes, hidden people (huldufólk), outlaws, ghosts, and forefathers who were Vikings, chieftains, or kings.
Common themes were characters confronting adversity and emerging victorious. The endings were often uplifting. Stories always involved moral lessons on ethical behavior. These stories very much acted as an opportunity for Icelandic families to impart societal values, while sharing history, geography, and cultural knowledge.
Storytelling contributed to children’s spiritual development, playing a huge role in their upbringing and providing them with role models and a moral compass. It sparked imaginations of what it meant to be noble, valiant and have character. It strengthened one’s sense of right versus wrong, giving youth role models to emulate and, hence, shaping their character. The kvöldvaka was also a time when children received education, namely how to read and write, as required by religious law.
For everyone, the kvöldvaka provided an opportunity to stay mentally sharp, with entertainment involving people making up poetry on the spot. “Að kveðast á”, as it was called, involved somebody making up the first line in a poem, then another person the making up the next, and so on. This evening time together ultimately proved itself a cultural institution for creativity, enlightenment, and the cultivation of the nation’s values and attitudes towards life.
The kvöldvaka was a space of hope in lives that were full of loss, grief, and hardship – and in ways many Westerners will, thankfully, never know. It ended as a formal, nightly tradition with my great-grandparents‘ generation, when housing in Iceland became more spacious and sophisticated. But given Iceland‘s long, hard winters, Icelandic families have continued such regular quality time together to some extent, enjoying evenings filled with activities like puzzles, card games, reading, music and movies.
These last few weeks of social distancing, to counter the spread of COVID-19, have been incredibly challenging for many of us globally. Yet for those lucky enough to be quarantining with others, this time together can be an opportunity to enrich and bond as never before. Instead of looking at lockdown as a type of imprisonment, consider how you and yours can have a kvöldvaka of sorts.
What can you make a tradition for your family in spending quality time together? Could this involve reading aloud for each other? Putting on a play or puppet show? Discussing the themes and morals of a family-friendly movie? Taking turns making up your own tales? Singing or playing musical instruments for each other? Learning to knit or perform other hand tasks, perhaps with YouTube experts as guides?
Don‘t be afraid to challenge yourselves as far as how creative you can be, perhaps discovering a talent you never knew that you had. Don‘t underestimate the joy and satisfaction that can be found in the simplicity of activities. Do be open to all of the ways this challenging time can invite more old-fashioned enrichment and connection.
I originally learned a lot about the kvöldvaka when doing research for my dissertation (on mother-daughter sex communication in Iceland), thanks to:
Koester, D. (1995). Gender ideology and nationalism in the culture and politics of
Iceland. American Ethnology, 22, 572-588.
A delightful book I recently came across, Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days, confirmed much of what Koester had to say.