Islendingadagurinn, The Icelandic Celebration, The Icelandic Festival, The Gimli Pickerel Party
There’s Christmas. There’s Easter. There’s Thanksgiving. However, none of those days, for those of us who grew up in Gimli, Manitoba, are as important as the first weekend in August. That’s when the holiday with the unpronounceable name, Islendingadagurinn happens. Part of the charm of this celebration has been its wickedly long Icelandic name. An Icelandic Celebration, an Icelandic Festival, a Gimli Pickerel Party don’t have the same cachet. I mean, how do you beat answering the question what are you doing on the long weekend with “I’m going to Islendingadagurinn.”?
This year is going to be the 125th anniversary of Islendingadagurinn. My great grandfather went to Islendingadagurinn, my grandfather went to Islendingadagurinn, my father went to Islendingadagurinn and I went to Islendingadagurinn. Not calling this celebration Islendingadagurinn is like sawing the horns off the Viking statue that stands on guard over Gimli. His helmet may not be authentic because of the horns but so what, no real Vikings landed on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in 1875. Our ancestors did. They were sheep farmers, fishermen, indentured servants, people driven out of Iceland by weather, politics and poverty. However, a statue of a sheep farmer doesn’t have the same impact as a Viking with a horned helmet. If the Viking had any sense of branding they’d have put horns on their helmets.
Gimli, when I grew up there in the 1940s and 1950s, was Icelandic to the core. Yes, there were other ethnic groups represented: Ukrainian, German, Polish, Aboriginal, Scots, English, Irish, the odd Dane but the town was Icelandic. They dominated the local politics. They dominated the business community. They were the social elite. Even small Manitoba towns have social elites. Icelandic was spoken in stores, in church, in homes. The Viking with horns hadn’t been built yet. He wasn’t yet needed to remind us of who we were.
In the 40s, Islendingadagurinn was mostly a family affair. It was mostly about those local people who had moved away, coming back to touch base with coffee and kleiner and vinarterta. And mom and dad and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins. People of Icelandic descent are big on family relationships. They can drink four pots of coffee while discussing how they’re all related to everyone else at the kitchen table.
Islendingadagurinn grew. People used to come down on the train, then cars became more available and people drove from near and far. Like from Winnipeg and Brandon and even Edmonton and Calgary. They came from other small communities in Manitoba’s Interlake. The parade which, at first, was some cars decorated with colored ribbon and signs announcing local politicians as passengers added the Shriners. The Shriners brought color, music, entertainment, turned the parade into a spectacle worthy of a city instead of a small Manitoba town. That, in turn, attracted bigger and better floats. The parade now is an event not to be missed.
As more people came to share in the Icelandic experience, more events needed to be created for them. The visitors were no longer just relatives enjoying a visit and a beer. There were the usual races, the speeches by the Fjallkona (the queen of the mountain), by distinguished visitors from Iceland but when people pour into town by the thousands, you’ve got to find something for them to do. That meant beer gardens, fish filleting competitions, knocking each other off poles over the water in the harbour, making sand castles, hosting a Viking village (I love the Viking village), creating a heritage display and sale at the local park, having pancake breakfasts, supplying Icelandic dainties. It all takes hundreds of volunteers. Volunteers work all year long to put on a four day festival. If they get any reward at all, it might be having lunch en mass with some Icelandic dignitary.
Along with the volunteers, local businesses pony up money to pay for musical concerts. They often pony up a lot of money because the concerts are by top notch professionals.
It’s ironic, in a way, that the year of Islendingadagurinn’s 125 anniversary, there is a problem with financing. I guess there’s always been a problem because there’s no way of charging all those thousands of people who come to have an Icelandic experience. Here, on Vancouver Island, we have the Saanichton Fair. It’s a knockout agricultural fair. However, it takes place in the country on fenced in grounds. You pay at the gate for the day or for the weekend. No one minds. We all line up and push our money through the ticket seller’s window and get our hand stamped. We all know that events have to be financed.
To me, although I left Gimli in 1957 to go to university and have lived away ever since, coming back in the summers, Islendingadagurinn is Gimli. It’s Gimli’s heart. It’s Gimli’s identity. But it is more than that, otherwise, it would just be a small town festival. It’s at the heart of the Icelandic North American community. It’s a public expression of who we are.
I write from half a continent away at a time when the Gimli park is deep in snow, the temperature hovers around -35, the choice of Gimli as a place to create New Iceland, is highly questionable, but the snow will melt, the air will warm, summer will come.
Many of us will travel great distances to participate in Islendingadagurinn, even though it may be called something else. For those of us raised in Gimli, the celebration will always be Islendingadagurinn. The Icelandic flags and the Fjallkona in her robes representing the Icelandic landscape will always be with us.
It has taken tremendous dedication and hard work to preserve this celebration of our history and culture for 125 years. I hope that those who have taken on the task today find a way to finance Islendingadagurinn for another 125.