On a recent trip to Iceland to we were lucky enough to be invited to a community event by Saeli the owner of the local guide company we work with. We had met with his family for dinner beforehand before driving to the next village. His children and their friends excitedly bounded up dressed as Elsa from Frozen, a Star Wars character, Harry Potter and a Minion. It was snowing and quite blowy, but none of the kids in their flimsy outfits seemed to notice!
The local community organised the event and it was for the local villages in the area to celebrate the 12th day after Christmas. Apparently about 10 families got together to make this happen. We arrived to see the most enormous bonfire built in the middle of a snowy field– the sort of bonfire you see in the UK for professional Guy Fawkes Night that you pay a fortune to enter. It was HUGE!
The event started with a procession led by the King and Queen of the Elves who proceeded down to the bonfire. The procession was made up of children in various home-made fancy dress costumes where the “star” stole the show, though the poor child could hardly move in his contraption!
As the procession of elves and fairies wound their way around, a choir made up of the mums and dads sang traditional songs about the fairies and elves, (with which Iceland has strong cultural beliefs). A fire-eater walked up and down spewing fire, and as the bonfire roared a spectacular display of fireworks was set off.
Afterwards they retired to the village hall for drinks and food that they had all brought and combined together. I stood there and watched this wonderful scene and felt overwhelming nostalgia for my childhood where this sort of community connection was the norm.
Earlier in the season there had been an extraordinarily intense storm in the north of Iceland. It was so bad that when people opened their front doors afterwards they were met with a solid wall of snow. We did have clients up there, and together with my local partner, we looked after them and rearranged their plans and kept them safe.
A couple of days later my local partner Anton rang me to say that he would be out of communication for a week as he had volunteered himself and his guides, who were not with clients, to help the local power company as all power lines were down and they needed to get electricity flowing again for the people trapped in their houses in the north. When I asked him what he would be actually doing he replied “anything that they need me to, it doesn’t matter what, as long as it helps”.
I was so impressed that Iceland has managed to retain this strong sense of community, that the focus was on staying together as a community, to helping each other and doing whatever needed to be done without any sense of “it’s someone else’s job”, “it’s below me”. Maybe it is because of the harshness of the environment in terms of the potential of extreme weather and volcanic activity that creates that. It’s important you know your neighbours and help each other as that is how a society survives and thrives in difficult times.
In my childhood the big houses in the area took turns to host the annual village garden party. A Fancy dress competition for the kids was always the highlight where none of the costumes were bought ready-made off the internet, but instead lovingly created by our parents. There were various games such as if you can roll your bowl to stop directly on-top of the £1 note you could win it, Splat the Rat and of course the lucky dip in the sawdust, as well as pony rides and the inevitable tombola for the cheap rather nasty bottles of wine.
On Christmas day after church a small group of kids from the village would perform a little play for the gathered adults before we all went our separate ways back to our family houses for the Christmas meal.
As a family we always had Guy Fawkes Bonfire night with a group of friends. The focus was the bonfire and we would have one or two fireworks, (and sometimes old sailing flares), and then would cook sausages and chestnuts on the fire afterwards. Beforehand we would wheel our guy around the village for “Penny for the Guy” to raise money for a charity of our choice.
So in January, as I stood there in Iceland looking at this community connecting in a simple and joyful way, I felt sad that these simple community events and values seem to have been lost in England.
This was in early January before the Coronavirus was on any of our radars. With the rise of the fear of Coronavirus and the impending need for people to self-isolate, especially the elderly and the vulnerable, I am re-evaluating this thought that these values are lost.
Last night a piece of paper was shoved under our door giving names and contact phone numbers in the area of a group of people who had gathered together to help anyone in isolation. They offered to do the grocery shops and pick up medical supplies for people that should not be leaving their homes. It brought such warmth to my heart.
Maybe if there is one thing this dreadful virus can give us is the ability to reconnect with “our village” and to enjoy the simple joy of being part of a community that we actively contribute to.