SAINT OLAVS DAY & THE SUMMER FESTIVALS

Before the Reformation the Wake of St. Olav was an important religious festival in Norway and the Norwegian tributary countries, of which the Faroes were one. The Norwegian king Olav the Holy fell on the 29th of July,1030 in the battle at Stiklestad, and every year on that day Norway’s patron saint was commemorated.

It is now a thousand years since the chief Sigmund Brestisson introduced Christianity in a proclamation on the rocky headland at the end of Tinganes in Tórshavn. The Icelandic saga, Færeyingasaga, describes the struggle between the Christian chief Sigmund and the heathen chief Tróndur í Gøtu. Tróndur is in power, but, with the help of King Olav Trygvason in Norway, Sigmund defeats his enemy for a time, until he is attacked at his farm on Skúvoy. Sigmund has to jump into the sea and swim the long way to Suðuroy, where he is found exhausted on the beach and killed by the farmer Tórgrímur the Wicked.

But Christianity triumphed, and Olav the Holy also became the patron saint of the Faroes. In most places he has been forgotten and now only figures in books about Norwegian and Nordic history; but in the Faroes he was so revered that to this day his wake is celebrated in the capital of the islands - the Olai Festival. For hundreds of years and despite the fall of Catholicism, this day has been celebrated as a kind of national festival, when work stopped and people flocked to Tórshavn from all over the islands.

Over the years the festival has grown and in order to accommodate all the activities on the programme it now starts on the eve of Saint Olav’s Day. On the afternoon of the 28th the festival is officially opened with a procession through the town headed by men on horseback with the Faroese flag at the forefront. They make their way to the lawn in front of the parliament building. After this comes the eagerly awaited boat race where the final result of the summer’s competitions will be decided and the champions of the year celebrated.



Sporting events, meetings, concerts follow in a tightly packed programme, so full that few can take part in everything. On the other hand, the item which gives the greatest pleasure is not mentioned in the programme. It is to walk up and down the main street and follow along with the stream of people dressed in their best, often national dress, or to struggle against the stream and greet friends and acquaintances and people you have not seen for years, but who have now come home on holiday, or on a visit, to take part in the festivities.



On the 29th, Saint Olav’s Day itself, there is a ceremonial procession from the parliament building in the centre of the town to the church service in the Cathedral. The members of parliament, the government, the clergy and all the leading civil servants take part. After the church service they go back to the parliament building, where a choir sings outside. They then enter the parliament building and the prime minister delivers his opening speech. A new political and parliamentary year commences.

Friendships are made or renewed, the whole town is alive, and there is dancing both outdoors and indoors. And at midnight on the 29th it is over. Then everyone gathers for the community singing in the centre of the town, the streets are full of people, no matter what the weather, and everyone joins in the singing. It is a manifestation of fellowship, the like of which is not seen many places in the world, and all the while the coloured lamps twinkle in the darkness, which has returned and tells that the festival is over and summer is waning.

But before this there have been many other memorable experiences. In the time of the long light evenings, from the end of May to the end of July, many festivals are arranged throughout the islands. The first is in Klaksvík with the norðoyastevna. The town is in festive attire and decked with bunting and banners. After a long period of preparation the festivities get under way with processions, music, speeches, meetings and church services, exhibitions, and, not of least importance, sports and sporting competitions. And when the starting shot for the year’s first rowing competition in the elegant Faroese boats is heard, everyone knows, both the local people and the many visitors, that summer has really come. Other festivals follow, such as eystanstevna for Skálafjørður, jóansøka in Suðuroy, varmakeldustevna in Fuglafjørður and vestanstevna for Vágar and Vestmanna.

Life was often hard in the Faroes, with heavy work in the fields and at sea, and there were constant dangers from fog, storms and lashing seas. This bred a deep sense of religion, which is still characteristic of daily life in the Faroes and which creates a bond far back in time, right back to when Christianity came to the islands. The summer festivals are the light side of this deep seriousness. The worship of God is a part of them, but it is primarily the festivals and the joy of living that dominate. And the joy of summer’s overwhelming light in the world.

Regional Festivals
A highlight of the Faroese summer is the range of local festivals that give rise to a frenzy of activity in all regions. Main attractions of all festivals are the fun fair, sporting events and dancing. Boat races in traditional Faroese boats take place at the festivals competing in the FM challenge, and these are considered by many to be the absolute highpoint of the festivals.

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