Tyler Shepherd is the youngest Icelandic Association of Utah boardmember. He served an LDS mission in Iceland and has returned three times: once for his honeymoon and twice with friends and the association. But his ties to Iceland go back much further—not only did Shepherd grow up in Spanish Fork, which has the largest population of Icelanders outside of Iceland, but his grandfather was Icelandic, and his grandmother was half Icelandic. Shepherd has hosted the president of Iceland and many other Icelandic visitors in his home and, along with the rest of the Icelandic Association, works to keep his beloved Icelandic heritage young and alive in Utah. Part of that includes the upcoming Žorrablót (pronounced Thorrabloat) Icelandic Festival (Saturday, Feb. 22, 5 p.m., Veterans Memorial Building, 400 N. Main, Spanish Fork). Visit Facebook.com/IcelandicAssociationOfUtah for more information.
What is the meaning behind the Thorrablót celebration?
Thorri was the king of the frost, and blót means celebration. It technically is a midwinter celebration that they still do in Iceland. In Utah, we always did the summer celebration over the Icelandic Independence Day on June 20 to 22, but 15 years ago, we added Thorrablót to bring people together during the winter. Surprisingly, it stuck, and we get about 200 to 250 people every year.
What kind of food can be expected at Thorrablót?
I don’t know if you’ve heard much about the traditional Thorrablót food, but it’s pretty nasty, gross stuff. We also have good normal food available, though, like Icelandic ham, rutabagas, potatoes and fish. And then there’s this Viking sample platter of the more traditional winter foods, such as blood pudding, pickled chard, ram’s stomach and sheep’s head. We bring in samples of those and people can try it, but none of it is really that good. I mean, the blood pudding is actual lamb’s blood with oatmeal. It’s that type of stuff.
They don’t even try to make it taste good? Why?
No. The whole thing with Thorrablót is that because the winters are so hard there between January and February, they would tend to run out of food. A lot of those foods are pickled so they last longer. Later in the winter, they would start running out of the good food, so they would have to eat this other stuff. Mostly only older people eat it nowadays.
What else goes on during the festival?
The winter celebration is shorter and more condensed than the summer festival and we don’t do as many activities; it’s mostly centered on the food. We go from 6 to 8 p.m. We have a children’s choir that sings several Icelandic songs. Then one of our members, Jack Tobiasson, plays his accordion and does some singing. We also have a slideshow of pictures from Iceland. We have a Snorri program, where we send one or two people between the ages of 18 and 34 to Iceland every year, and they go live there for 10 or 12 weeks and then come to Thorrablót and talk about their experiences there. There are then some missionaries that served in Iceland who come and talk about their time there as well.
What are some characteristics that define Icelanders to you?
They look kind of hard on the outside, but they are some of the nicest people. I never got a door slammed in my face on my mission, which is something not a lot of missionaries can say. We’re also heavily family-oriented and definitely stick together, which is why there is still such a large group of us in Spanish Fork today. There’s a joke that we’re kind of bullheaded. When my dad, who’s not Icelandic, puts up a fight with either me or my mom, he’ll be like, “You dang Icelanders!”
What’s the attitude of actual Icelanders toward the LDS church?
Everyone knows about Utah and the church over there. They love it, they think it’s great, but Icelanders don’t like to get married, they like their coffee and typically like to smoke and drink. They’re a great people—you could teach tons of lessons every week—but they just don’t see a need to change their lives because they think they’re happy, and a lot of them are. It’s hard to argue that with them.
Where are the descendants of the Icelander immigrants now?
A lot of us are still in Spanish Fork. They all kind of settled on the bench of Spanish Fork by the modern-day windmills—the wind is bad through there. The rumor is that Brigham Young put the Icelanders there because they were already so used to the wind in Iceland.
Do people know if they’re of Icelandic descent?
If you have any in you, you know it and you’re proud of it. Like my kids are less than a quarter, and they know it and love it. They talk highly of Iceland and want to go there, and that’s the way all the people are.
Do you have to prove you’re of Icelandic descent to attend Thorrablót?
No, not at all! As a matter of fact, our accountant is Danish. So we have some members that aren’t Icelandic and some that are. We have a ton of people that just come to the event to check it out.