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An Icelandic Flood of Books

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It was only a couple of years ago that I first heard about Iceland’s Christmas tradition of Jólabókaflóð, roughly translated to ‘Christmas Book Flood.’ On Christmas Eve each year, Icelanders cosy up in front of the fire, drink hot chocolate and exchange books as gifts before spending the evening quietly together reading.

For a bibliophile like myself, I can’t imagine a more fabulous tradition. Last year, I organised a small Jólabókaflóð party for my daughter’s book club (not on Christmas Eve, mind you, but well into the Christmas season), arranging it so that they would all come to our house, drink hot chocolate, eat Icelandic cookies and exchange books. But then…well, we all know about Covid and lockdowns, so the book party never happened. Instead, my daughter and I did a mad dash around people’s houses, leaving books on doorsteps and waving into the cold night air as we gifted them all with ex-libris bookplates inside cards containing quotes about the joys of reading.

This year (and let’s keep everything crossed that we don’t end up like last year🤞 ), we are going to gift our family members we will be spending Christmas with a wrapped book on Christmas Eve. I would love to work it into our family traditions so that this happens every year from now on. The way we’re doing it is that all books must be second hand and purchased inexpensively so that there’s no pressure to buy shiny new books: one ‘new’ book per family member bought by everybody else, not one book from each person because that gets excessive.

A few words about the origins of what happens in Iceland in the run up to Christmas Eve and the origins of Jólabókaflóð…

It turns out that Icelanders are a nation of prolific readers and there are also more people writing books in Iceland than anywhere else in the world (who knew?). So in the run up to Christmas, huge numbers of new titles are released onto the Icelandic book market. Bookshops are turned into festive bazaars and Icelandic authors across all genres go and read their work to book lovers as the entire country tunes into a vast literary Christmas festival.

The origins were born, however, more out of scarcity than today’s decadent book feast. During the Second World War, there were severe restrictions on all imports to Iceland. For some unknown reason though, the restrictions to the local book market were not nearly as harsh and, as a result, people began to gift one another with books during the Christmas festivity season. Today, Iceland is one of the most prolific book-publishing countries in the world and Jólabókaflóð may be a good way to sell books, but it is also a treasured tradition.

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I won’t be staying in a wooden cabin beneath the Northern lights this year, and even snow is highly unlikely. But Book Flood is definitely coming to my family this Christmas 🎄

How about you? Do you have any traditions involving books?

Rebecca Stonehill

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