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During Christmastime in Iceland, there’s a unique and heartwarming tradition called Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood” and it’s going to make you want to move to Iceland immediately.
The idea behind Jolabokaflod (written in Icelandic as Jólabókaflóðið) is simple: books make the best Christmas gifts.
You probably know that already, but Iceland takes it to new heights—and the whole country is on board.
Picture yourself in the weeks leading up to Christmas. A catalog of new books is delivered to your door, and the whole family enthusiastically studies it, making a list of the new releases they are most excited to read.
Your gift buying has become easy, because there are so many choices you know everyone will love.
On Christmas Eve, the family gathers and exchanges those thoughtfully chosen books.
After the presents are unwrapped, everyone cozies up with their new books in hand, sipping warm cups of cocoa and enjoying their new reads and the twinkling Christmas lights.
SERIOUSLY. This is what they do! Books and cocoa for everyone! No electronics, batteries, or beeping ankle-breaker presents.
Is this not a Christmas dream come true?
In Iceland, the Christmas Book Flood is deeply rooted and considered an essential part of the festivities. It reflects the strong connection between storytelling and Icelandic identity—and demonstrates just how genius Icelandic people are for embracing the best Christmas tradition in the history of ever.
Iceland’s Publishing Industry and Love for Books
Iceland actually publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and books are the most popular Christmas gift.
The holiday season brings in an astonishing 80% of annual revenues for the country’s publishing industry. It’s probably no surprise that Iceland has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
A thriving network of bookstores and a wealth of Icelandic authors who enjoy both local and international success round out Iceland’s literary landscape.
The capital city of Reykjavík is even one of the UNESCO Cities of Literature. It truly is a book lover’s dream.
These are some noteworthy aspects of Jolabokaflod and how it bolsters the Icelandic publishing industry:
- New books: A significant number of new books hit the shelves just before Christmas. Publishers release these titles just in time for the holidays, creating a competitive and exciting atmosphere for book sales.
- Bókatíðindi (Book Bulletin): This comprehensive bulletin featuring all of the year’s new book releases is delivered free to every household and often used as a shopping guide for book lovers. The arrival of the Bókatíðindi kicks off the holiday season—and builds excitement for the new books.
I remember poring over toy catalogs at Christmas as a kid, and this sounds even better!
- Publishing sector: The tradition of gifting books promotes a healthy and competitive publishing environment.
- Bookstores: Increased sales, as well as bookstore events with authors during Jolabokaflod support local bookstores and help boost the overall book trade in the country.
The uniqueness of Jolabokaflod lies in its ability to transform the holiday season in Iceland into an extended city-wide literary celebration.
The History of Jolabokaflod
Iceland has a long history of literary and storytelling culture, but Jolabokaflod itself goes back to World War II, when Iceland faced restrictions on imported goods.
During this time, paper wasn’t rationed, so books were one of the best gift options. Publishers capitalized on this, giving birth to the now-famous Icelandic custom.
Since then, the arrival of a plethora of books in the lead up to Christmas has come to define Jolabokaflod.
Good for the economy, good for Icelandic culture and pride, good for literacy. Win, win, win!
How to Celebrate Jolabokaflod in Your Home
Even if you’ve never been to Iceland for Christmas (and it’s now a bucket list dream for me!), you can embrace the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod and add a cozy and delightful twist to your holiday celebrations.
Here are a few easy ideas to help you incorporate this heartwarming custom into your home:
- Build some bookish excitement: Have all of your loved ones spend some time making their book wish lists. This could mean narrowing down an existing TBR (including backlist), or you could limit it to just new releases and mimic the Icelandic tradition of reviewing the Book Bulletin.
- Choose and exchange books as gifts: The core of Jolabokaflod involves gifting books to your loved ones. Use the wish lists to pick out a thoughtful book for each family member or friend to gift on Christmas Eve.
- If you’re the gift-buyer for your family, you can pick a special book for everyone (don’t forget yourself!).
- If you’re able to share the load and will have a gathering of adults, turn your book exchange into a Secret Santa-like event! Everyone is responsible for buying a book for one other person.
- Include other small gifts with your books: You might include a special bar of chocolate or a bookmark, or you could outfit everyone in some Jolabokaflod-themed items, such as book tote bags, mugs, t-shirts, or ornaments.
- Set aside time for reading on Christmas Eve: Once you’ve exchanged the books, designate some quiet time for everyone to dive into their new reads.
- Create a cozy reading atmosphere: To truly immerse yourself in the spirit of Jolabokaflod, set up some comfy reading nooks and soft places, or gather around the fireplace. Adding soft lighting and non-distracting music, blankets, and cushions can enhance the experience for everyone.
- Add a warm beverage or chocolate to the mix: According to the Icelandic tradition, sipping on a cup of hot cocoa or another warm drink while reading is a must. You might even create a small tray of sweet treats for everyone to enjoy as they read.
- Share your thoughts about the books: After spending time reading, you might want to spend some time discussing the books everyone received. Sharing initial thoughts and impressions can keep the bookish vibes going and wrap up the cozy evening of reading. You may find that you’re making early plans to borrow one another’s books after you finish them!
By incorporating these simple Jolabokaflod ideas into your holiday celebrations, you can create a cozy lead-in to Christmas day—and a much-needed break from the usual hustle and bustle of the season.
You might just find that Jolabokaflod becomes your favorite holiday tradition as well.