Thorláksmessa, the Feast of Saint Thorlák Thorhallsson

| By Aimee O’Connell |

December 23 is a national holiday in Iceland: Thorláksmessa, the Feast of Saint Thorlák Thorhallsson, the sixth bishop of Skálholt and Iceland’s patron saint who died on this date in 1193.  With its proximity to Christmas, the holiday is usually the day when preparation finally turns to celebration, with friends meeting for coffee and last-minute shopping.  More notoriously, the feast has also become synonymous with kæst skata, the pungent dinner of fermented skate and potatoes, followed by a generous shot of Brennivín. 

As an American without direct ties to the Icelandic community, my knowledge of Thorláksmessa might have ended here, filed away with trivia for interesting conversation.  As someone wanting to know more about the life of St. Thorlák, however, I found myself digging deeper, asking actual Icelanders about the holiday and its namesake.  I learned, to my surprise, that these customs relate more to anticipating the Christmas holidays than to Bishop Thorlák himself. To wit: Kæst skata is how people in the Westfjords ensured they had fish on hand for Christmas Eve, with the culinary practice gradually migrating into the mainstream as more people moved toward, and settled in, Reykjavík. 

 My own wish for more information about St. Thorlák inspired me to compose a novena, or nine-day devotional prayer, in his honor.  I based this on the Saga of Bishop Thorlák with each day’s reflection touching on a different quality of his character – the same qualities which led the Althing to declare Thorlák Iceland’s Patron Saint in 1198, and which Pope St. John Paul II affirmed when he made this declaration universal to the entire Church in 1984: Quietly humble… pure of heart… mentor in wisdom… gentle pastor… merciful confessor… champion of families and holy matrimony… defender of authentic Catholic living in all states in life… fatherly intercessor… true ambassador of Christ… and, devoted patron of the Icelandic people. 

 In 2018, Bishop David B. Tencer approved the novena as an officially recognized prayer of the Catholic Church.  Since then, Catholics in Iceland have recited the novena at the daily Masses leading up to Thorláksmessa, reconnecting Iceland with the true roots of this feast by honoring his life and example.

St. Thorlak print

For those wishing to join in reciting the novena:

 Icelandic text (via Diocese of Reykjavik)

English text (via the Autism Consecrated website)

English audio (via YouTube)

Purchase (via Amazon)