Jólabókaflód Christmas book flood

Iceland: the country where Christmas Eve is spent reading in bed

Icelanders have an odd way of celebrating Christmas: curled up in bed with a good book.

Iceland is the country with most books published per inhabitant in the whole world. For every 1000 inhabitants, five new books are published.

So maybe it’s not so strange that since World War II, Icelanders have enjoyed a rather unique Christmas tradition: giving each other books.

They call this custom Jólabókaflód, which in English means something like ‘Christmas book flood’. And it’s why the huge majority of books in the Icelandic publishing market are sold between late September and early December.

Iceland’s publishing houses release their new publications during the months leading up to Christmas. These titles are then included in a yearly catalogue, Bókatíðindi, which is distributed free to every Icelandic home to help people do their Christmas shopping.

24 December is the big day for bookworms all over the island: friends and family get together to exchange gifts (books of course). Then they all curl up in their beds and start reading.

Getting sozzled on mulled wine, dodging kisses from over-zealous aunts, falling asleep in front of Home Alone for the third Christmas running. That may be what Christmas means to most of us, but for Icelanders it’s all about the books. And that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Iceland has a long literary tradition dating to before medieval times. But the origin of Jólabókaflód is more recent.  

During the Second World War, it became very difficult for Iceland to import foreign goods. As an island nation with relatively few natural resources, this meant that people struggled to find things they could give to each other as gifts.

But one exception during this time of scarcity was books. Paper was still widely available, making book publication possible and relatively cheap. Icelanders decided that exchanging books would be their own unique way of celebrating Yuletide.

And today, almost 80 years later, the tradition shows no sign of dying out.

If you’ve been toying with the idea of moving to Iceland ever since you heard it was the country with the most musical instruments per person, then maybe the Jólabókaflód tradition will help seal the deal.

 


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