When I lived on Vestmannaeyjar, I became fascinated with the quirky local tradition of putting candles on mountains. In the darker months of the year, you can often see candles on Heimaklettur, the iconic Home Rock of the island.
The first one usually appears just before or after the Þjóðhátíð festival at the beginning of August, when the endless midnight sun is slowly fading. The flickering candles are clearly visible from the town and for people who come in on the evening ferry. Visitors might be wondering what’s going on with these candles on mountains?
New Year’s Eve fireworks and a candle on the Black Rock.
New Year’s Eve fireworks in Iceland
Icelanders really like their fireworks. On New Year’s Eve, the fireworks in Reykjavík are legendary. It’s total mayhem that goes on for hours. But also in other towns around Iceland, including Vestmannaeyjar, people shoot their fire up to the sky to celebrate the new year with vigorous enthusiasm.
One of the reasons is that fireworks are exclusively sold by ICE-SAR, the Icelandic Search and Rescue teams. The revenue provides a big deal of support for their courageous and voluntary rescue operations in harsh conditions throughout the year.
An interesting fact is that ICE-SAR actually started on Vestmannaeyjar, where the first rescue team was established in 1918.
A Christmas candle on Helgafell volcano.
Candles on Eldfell volcano.
Perhaps it also has something to do with their volcanoes. Icelanders love a good volcano eruption. If it doesn’t belch out giant ashclouds or noxious fumes, or pose a threat to people’s homes, they don’t run away from it. They run towards it, and enjoy the show.
They bring food and snacks, and sometimes even their guitars for an impromptu festival to pay tribute to the volcano, as it creates more parts of Iceland in an incredible spectacular way.
Candles on Heimaklettur
On Vestmannaeyjar, people not only like fireworks. They also like to light candles on mountainsides. It’s an enchanting Vestmannaeyjar tradition that has been going for decades.
When the days grow shorter, candles are often placed on the slopes of Heimaklettur. These candles are lit by dedicated locals who frequently go up to Heimaklettur, so that people in town can enjoy some pretty lights blissfully shining during the darker times of the year. Some of the regulars even have their own ‘candle spot’, and go up several times per week if the weather is good.
Usually you can see one or two candles. But around Christmas and New Year it gets totally out of control, and Heimaklettur is decorated with a multitude of candles all over the upper slopes. In some years the candles have even spread to Miðklettur and all the way to Ystiklettur around the harbour of Heimaey.
My candle spot on Heimaklettur.
Candles on mountains, when did this start?
Where does this Vestmannaeyjar tradition come from? Iceland Magazine wrote an article in 2014 about the heartwarming story behind the candles. The people of Vestmannaeyjar (locally known as Eyjamenn) have been lighting candles and bonfires on mountain slopes on special occasions for decades.
The candlelighting on Heimaklettur was started in 1998 by Friðbjörn Valtýsson, as a memorial to his father. He then proceeded to light twelve candles on Heimaklettur every New Year’s Eve. This tradition was later on continued by Pétur Steingrímsson, who was interviewed in the article, together with other locals. They hike up to Heimaklettur almost every other day, to light a candle on its slopes for other people to enjoy during the winter months.
The sturdy red outdoor candles can burn for 8 to 12 hours and are produced by the local Heimaey Candle Factory.
Candle above the Elephant Rock on Blátindur.
A light in the winter darkness
In the Iceland Magazine article Pétur says he was ‘extremely touched when he found out that patients at the hospital enjoyed seeing the glow in the distance’. The sight fills them with a sense of joy and warmth. Many people like to see the flame of the candles on Heimaklettur before going to bed at night.
It’s like a comforting beacon of light in the dark winter nights.
The first candle of the season on Heimaklettur. It’s located just above the steep cliffs.
New Year’s Eve candle lighting brigade
Pétur and his friends also continued the Christmas and New Year’s Eve candle extravaganza. With a group of other candle-affectionados they go up to Heimaklettur to arrange and light a huge number of outdoor candles. The candles burn through the end of the old year and into the new.
I was fascinated by this story and it inspired me to become an avid candle lighter too. So I took part in the New Year’s Eve candle lighting session on Heimaklettur in 2017. And I went & lit candles on several other kletturs as well.
The weather was spectacular during the New Year’s Eve candle expedition. There was hardly any wind (a rare thing on Vestmannaeyjar!) and the setting sun provided fireworks in the sky before the real ones had even started. Meanwhile, the full moon rose in a vibrant pink sky over Eyjafjallajökull in the distance, as we made our way across the top of Heimaklettur.
New Year’s Eve candle & sunset on Heimaklettur.
It’s no easy task to light the New Year’s Eve candles on Heimaklettur…! 😉
Sometimes the candles are outshined by the displays of nature itself.
An incredibly beautiful sight
Early in August, I had noticed the first candles on Heimaklettur. It was just before the Þjóðhátíð festival. Þjóðhátíð is famous for its spectacular firework shows. On the first night of the festival, candles are lit in impossible places all over Blátindur, the intimidating peak rising up above Herjólfsdalur. It is an incredibly beautiful sight.
After that, my inner pyromaniac had awakened & came out of the closet.
More about the Þjóðhátíð festival further down in this story.
Black Rock candle with Klif in the background.
Northern lights & a candle on the Black Rock.
Candle spots on Heimaey
As the traditional spots on Heimaklettur were already taken, the Pointy Black Rock on Há became my signature candle spot. It was nicely visible from the garden where I lived, and no-one had put a candle there before, as far as I knew. But I also scouted some new spots on Heimaklettur itself.
Then I continued to light candles all over the place, including on the Eldfell and Helgafell volcanoes. I even went and put a candle on the Tricky Ridge once – that huge gap between Miðklettur and the nearly impossible-to-get-to Ystiklettur on Heimaey harbour; the point of no return. It’s locally known as ‘Klettaskórð’.
Klettaskórð, the Tricky Ridge on Heimaey harbour. Can you spot the candle? 😉
Klif candle and Wilderness Coffee in the snow.
The beacon light on Klif and a candle in the distance.
Ritual of fire and candle-pyromania
After Þjóðhátíð 2018 I set up a ‘mini-blysin’ of 8 candles on Blátindur. On the last night of the festival it had been so windy that almost half of the candles went out shortly after the torches were lit. So the next day I collected two bags of hardly-used candles from the slopes of Herjólfsdalur, to feed my candle-pyromania for the rest of the year.
And, of course, to light candles in pretty places for everyone to enjoy. I’m proud to contribute to this unique Vestmannaeyjar tradition. Kveikjum eldana – þar sem hjartað slær. 🔥
Candles and a mini-blysin on Blátindur.
View towards Herjólfsdalur.
The biggest fireworks & candle party of them all is during Þjóðhátíð at the beginning of August.
I heard about this festival on my first visit to Vestmannaeyjar in 2007, when it had just taken place a few weeks before I was there. I was fascinated and decided I should come back some time to see this festival. What I didn’t know then was the spectacular ritual of fire they set off on the last evening of the festival – until I saw a video of the quintessential Vestmannaeyjar festival song ‘Þar sem hjartað slær’ in 2014. And the rest is history. There was no stopping me, I just had to go there, one way or another.
Candles on the mountain tops during Þjóðhátíð.
The torch bearers brigade
In 2016 I could finally make it to Þjóðhátíð and was moved to tears when the band performed ‘Þar sem hjartað slær’ live on stage, and the hillside of Herjólfsdalur was set on fire with an incredible row of torches. In Iceland, this part is known as the ‘blysin í brekkunni’. The next year, I had to be part of it, and wield a fiery torch myself.
I’ve been in the torch bearers brigade up on the brekkunni every year since then.
Even when the festival was cancelled for two years in a row during Covid, I found a way to be there. There were no bands in 2020, but in 2021 they performed live in front of an empty valley, for an online broadcast. Herjólfsdalur was closed off for the public, but that didn’t stop me. I climbed up via the back route, and enjoyed a private concert with the puffins and the sheep high up on the Herjólfsdalur ridge. 🙂
Þjóðhátíð 2021. Two torches and 146 candles…
Symbolism behind the festival torches and candles
The line of torches represent the volcanic fire from which the islands are born. They make the entire length of Herjólfsdalur look like a giant fissure eruption. Each year, the number of torches increases for every year the festival has been held, since 1874. Not even the Eldfell eruption could stop the festival from happening in 1973. For the first time in its nearly 150-year history, Þjóðhátið was cancelled in 2020.
By 2021, there should have been 148 torches. This time, only two torches were lit, amongst 146 candles. One torch for every year the festival didn’t happen, due to Covid. It was an incredible touching and spine-tingling moment to watch this from above, in my private seat on the brekkunni.
While Sverrir Bergman & Albatross performed a very intense and heartfelt version of ‘Þar sem hjartað slær’, as if it was for a valley full of people, I had tears in my eyes all over again.
Kveikjum eldana! (and burn Covid to the ground!) 🔥
Við komum alltaf aftur
Herjólfsdalur heilsar okkur
Við erum Þjóðhátíð!
(*) Lyrics from ‘Göngum í takt‘ – Hreimur Örn Heimisson (Þjóðhátið festival song 2021).
Candle-lighting on the Pointy Black Rock.
Kertasníkir, the candle beggar and the 13th Yule lad. He likes to steal candles (and light them on mountain tops). He’s probably my distant relative… 😉
Viral in Vestmannaeyjar
In January 2017 I wrote a story in which I declared my love for Vestmannaeyjar and Þjóðhátíð, and decided to share it in the local Heimaklettur Facebook group. It went ‘viral in Vestmannaeyjar’. My story was even published on the official festival site. I was also interviewed for an article in the local Þjóðhátíð magazine in the summer of 2017, when I was living and working on the island.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
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Last update: 19 August 2023
First published: 20 February 2023
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Video – Þar sem hjartað slær
A spine-tingling version of the epic Vestmannaeyjar festival song ‘Þar sem hjartað slær’… Sverrir Bergmann, live @ Þjóðhátið 2021.
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