Unlike parts like Norway, Canada, and Russia, Iceland doesn’t experience a true polar night. Instead, polar nights occur when the sun doesn’t shine somewhere, and the place stays dark throughout the winter.
However, some mountainous places in Iceland don’t receive sunlight throughout winter from November to late January. While they get light through the day, the peaks of the steep mountains prevent the sun’s rays. Consequently, towns in the Westfjords of Iceland live in a shadow throughout this time.
Subscribe to our Newsletter!
Receive selected content straight into your inbox.
On or around January 25, the sun finally shines on these fjord villages. Family and friends gather for Sólarkaffi, or “solar coffee,” to celebrate the sun’s return. One such town is Ísafjörður, where residents come together to celebrate Sólardagur or “Sun Day.”
It’s a simple but meaningful day where people say their goodbyes to the darker days and welcome the brighter days ahead. And out comes coffee and delicious Icelandic pancakes called pönnukökur.
Welcoming back the sun
The sun finally peeks over the mountains at different times in various places, and Icelanders are always happy to welcome the sun’s return. Many Icelanders celebrate Sólardagur on 25 January with coffee, hot drinks, and sweets.
However, places Ísafjörður only celebrate the day when the sun finally shines on their villages. It’s a joyous day, and they may postpone their celebrations if it is stormy or cloudy. But if the sun comes even for a few golden moments, the Sólarkaffi festivities start.
This tradition centers around coffee accompanied by pancakes with a simple sprinkling of sugar or whipped cream and jam. People also wish their family and friends gleðilega sólrisu, which translates to “merry sunrise.”
This day has been celebrated as far back as older residents can remember. So, why pancakes and coffee? Pancakes resemble the much-awaited sun and are beloved among Icelanders. And coffee is, well, coffee.
Besides Ísafjörður, this tradition is also celebrated in Siglufjörður, Seyðisfjörður, Bolungarvík, and Eskifjörður, among other towns.
What about the Icelandic pancakes
Icelandic pancakes are crepe-like pancakes traditionally made with vanilla extract with no sugar. But people from the older generation replaced vanilla with lemon extract.
“We like to call them Sólarpönnukökur,” says Edda from Siglufjörður. In Siglufjörður town, they celebrate their Sólardagur on 28 January.
Sólarpönnukökur translates to “sun pancakes.” And there are two ways to enjoy them; folded or rolled like a hotdog. The folded pancakes are mostly eaten with homemade rhubarb jam and whipped cream. But some people prefer to sprinkle sugar on top and then roll them.
Besides sun pancakes and sun coffee, some parts also have songs and poems for the sun’s return. As mentioned, it symbolizes hope and brighter days to come. For instance, in Fjallabyggð, children sing an ode — “Sól er yfir Fjallabyggð” — to celebrate this day.
Sólardagur in Reykjavík
Over time, people have moved from towns like Siglufjörður and Ísafjörður to Reykjavík for jobs and education. Still, Sólardagur holds a special place in their hearts, and they’ve brought these celebrations to the city — even though the city doesn’t experience the Polar Night in winter.
Every year, people from these places have been celebrating Sólarkaffi since 1946. Back then, it was just small coffee-pancake celebrations on Sunday afternoons. But today, these are lively celebrations with songs, dancing, speeches, coffee, and pancakes.
“Pancakes and coffee are a vital part of the celebration,” Halldór Smárason, who hails from Ísafjörður. He is a pianist and composer in Reykjavík and performs at the Sólardagur celebrations in Reykjavík every year. “I really love this event as it’s an opportunity to reunite with old friends and familiar faces from my hometown,” he adds.
Sólardagur celebrations have created other traditions to celebrate the gloomy winter days and the sun’s return. And to Icelanders, these sun celebrations usher in sunshine, hope, and a return to better days.
“It means quite a lot to us when it happens because of how it can affect us to be in the darkness for so long, which people cannot quite understand unless they live with it,” says Thelma Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who is a mental health expert at a hospital in Ísafjörður.