Iceland is known for its mythology, folklore and tales, and the stunning otherworldly landscapes. It is also a country of writers and readers, bookworms and book dragons; and it prints more books per capita than any other country in the world, with over 50% of Icelanders reading more than eight books per year (but I don’t have the exact number). So of course, it seems that the best-loved Icelandic tradition revolves around reading. Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas flood of books, is a literary Christmas celebration that begins with the printing of a catalogue in mid-November and ends with the giving, receiving, and reading of new books on Christmas Eve. This fabulous tradition of giving books isn’t foreign to other places yet I don’t think there are words in other languages to reflect that so well.
During WW II paper was one of the few non-rationed luxuries at the time when any items to be given as gifts were costly and hard to find. Therefore, printing of books was affordable and accessible which in turn meant they became the best gifts for families to exchange during the festive period. Following the end of the war more luxuries became steadily available; however, the tradition remained and continues to be so cherished. As a staple on the Icelandic Christmas calendar, the annual Jólabókaflóð celebrations begin with the publishing and distribution of the Bókatíðindi. The catalogue of new publications from Publisher’s Association in Iceland is distributed for free in autumn to every home. This provides a wonderful opportunity to choose all types of books for family and friends, exchange literary presents on Christmas Eve and spend the rest of the evening and the very dark night getting lost in words, while enjoying some chocolate and sweet treats.
I’m delighted to hear from some writers who embrace Jólabókaflóð tradition, and Lilja Sigurðardóttir is the first person to share her experience of the Christmas book flood.
‘Christmas is and will always be associated with books in my mind. Iceland has a long-standing tradition of only publishing books before Christmas and it’s called the ‘Jólabókaflóð’ or Christmas-book-flood. So, October and November is all about books and authors are superstars, promoting their books everywhere; bookstores, library events, workplaces.
The tradition is that many bigger workplaces like offices, factories etc. have a special morning, lunchtime or afternoon break in November or December, that most often is longer than usual and some Christmas foods or cakes are served to the staff and an author or two read to them from their new book.
I find these workplace visits very cosy. Many times people have decorated the workplace canteen for the event and there might be candlelight or other mild light as the slumber of the Arctic darkness is all consuming at this time of year and it is nice to take a break from the bright office lights and relax into the natural darkness. Sometimes I have had to point my phone flashlight at my book to be able to read! And there the people sit quietly with their hot chocolate in hand and listen to you read. I might be wrong but I have a feeling these kinds of workplace events are very specifically Icelandic and exist within the whole tradition of the ‘Jólabókaflóð.’ They always fill me with a quiet joy and love for the Icelandic Christmas.’