Jólabókaflóð: The Icelandic Christmas Tradition for Book Lovers

Jólabókaflóð: The Icelandic Christmas Tradition for Book Lovers

Thanks to a tweet from IndieBound a couple of months ago, I discovered Jólabókaflóð (yola-boka-flot), which translates to “Yule Book Flood.” It’s the Icelandic tradition of exchanging books on Christmas Eve and reading them late into the night while enjoying hot chocolate, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Since starting my research for this post, I’ve realized that it seems every book blogger is already talking about Jólabókaflóð, so it’s not much of a secret. But in the case that you haven’t heard of it, or you only know the snippet that I shared above, I decided to dive a little deeper on this cozy, “bookish” Christmas tradition.

The history of Jólabókaflóð

According to jolabokaflod.org and about a dozen other websites,

This tradition began during World War II once Iceland had gained its independence for Denmark in 1944. Paper was one of the few commodities not rationed during the war, so Icelanders shared their love of books even more as other types of gifts were short supply. This increase in giving books as presents reinforced Iceland’s culture as a nation of bookaholics – a study conducted by Bifröst University in 2013 found that half the country’s population read at least eight books a year.

Every year since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has published a catalogue – called Bókatíðindi (‘Book Bulletin’, in English) – that is sent to every household in the country in mid-November during the Reykjavik Book Fair. People use the catalogue to order books to give friends and family for Christmas.

While Iceland doesn’t read the most books per person—that’s India—reading still makes up a much bigger part of their culture than it does in the United States. The popularity of reading is many times older than our entire country is; the legendary sagas of the medieval times are some of the best known Icelandic literature, and the country is still head over heels for fantastical literature to this day.

When the 2013 Bifröst University study found 50% of Iceland’s population to read at least eight books a year, at the same time a study found that 50% of us read only five books a year. What’s more, according to a literary agency, 93% of Icelanders read at least one book a year, they have 3.5 books per 1,000 inhabitants, and 10% of them will publish a book in their lifetime.

How Icelanders celebrate Jólabókaflóð

The Christmas Eve book exchange and night-long reading session (along with hot chocolate or a combination of orange soda and brown ale called jólabland) seem to be a universal part of Jólabókaflóð. But like any holiday tradition, everyone has their own personal way of celebrating.

Thanks to blogger Ewa Sherman for their fascinating interviews with Icelandic authors on their Jólabókaflóð traditions.

In an interview with Ewa, author Lilja Sigurðardóttir said this:

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. . . . 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.

“Lilja reading for the staff of an Icelandic engineering firm”
From Ewa’s blog, Nordic Lighthouse

I don’t usually think of office Christmas parties as being particularly cozy, but this would definitely be my kind of party.

Ewa also interviewed Icelandic author Sólveig Pálsdóttir, who described his family’s tradition of playing the Book Title Game: 

The family divided into two or three groups, depending on how large the party was. In my family there were usually 40 to 50 people. Then each group would choose ten or so book titles to enact. The other groups had to guess the title and was given a set time to guess the answer. Turns were taken until one group or the other had amassed more points for their correct title guesses.

October and November are by far the most popular time of year for Icelandic book publishing; 56% of all book sales in the country take place between October and the end of the year. As Lilja Sigurðardóttir described, “October and November is all about books and authors are superstars, promoting their books everywhere; bookstores, library events, workplaces.”

Obviously, booksellers are well aware that this is the time for sales. I found an interesting promotion from a small UK-based publisher, Arachne Press, in which they are encouraging their customers to participate in Jólabókaflóð by doing buy-one-get-one-£5 so that you can buy “a book for you, a book for a friend.” The promo was a bit complicated, but I found their explanation funny: “There are undoubtedly simpler ways of doing this, but they require an upgrade of our systems and we haven’t the time or money for it.” Fair enough.

Jólabókaflóð goes international

There’s a good reason that Jólabókaflóð is gaining popularity in the UK. According to jolabokaflod.org, “senior executive-level media, publishing and social entrepreneur” Christopher Norris of the UK (who I think wrote the linked article) was able to spread the popularity of Jólabókaflóð internationally through a series of blog posts, events, and crowdfunding projects beginning in 2016. He even got the blessing of Hlynur Guðjónsson, Consul General and Trade Commissioner at the Consulate General of Iceland in New York. Norris works with Icelandic literature centers and has also raised money “for UK libraries to spend on books published in English by Icelandic authors.”

Jólabókaflóð has even become an annual book festival in Portland which celebrates Pacific Northwest indie authors together with a local holiday flea market on December 12th!

Norris has undoubtedly worked hard to share the book joy in new places, and who knows—maybe it’s thanks to him that news of it spread to me and so many other book bloggers. The popularity of Jólabókaflóð likely blew up in 2020, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because it allowed people to celebrate Christmas with a legitimate tradition that was just as charming without large gatherings.

Jólabókaflóð has undoubtedly become a cutesy thing for book bloggers (and bookstagrammers and BookTubers) to latch onto and incorporate into their aesthetic. (I’d say I’m guilty of this.) With this always comes a seed of caution: is this cultural appropriation?

Gladly, Kansas blogger Steven J. Kolbe has also wondered this. With true dedication to a great blog post on Jólabókaflóð, he asked Heiðar Ingi Svansson, the president of the Icelandic Publishers Association, what his thoughts were on the booming popularity of Jólabókaflóð in the United States. Svansson replied, “. . . personally, I’m very happy to hear and I find it both very surprising and interesting…maybe we should put some more emphasis on spreading the good word more on an international level.” This jibes with the happiness of Norris’s Icelandic publisher friends to work with him on spreading the cheer around the world.

Kolbe concluded, “After a week of research and going straight to the source, I’m happy to report that Jólabókaflóð is alive and well, and we Americans are officially invited!”

Will I participate in Jólabókaflóð?

Traditionally, Jólabókaflóð was probably a more structured practice done every year on Christmas Eve, but since blowing up people can observe in pretty much any way that honors their love of books. We’ve seen book festivals, authors reading in offices, and of course, dozens of people dedicating blog posts to it. Because of this, it would be hard to peg non-Icelandic Jólabókaflóð celebrations as cultural appropriation even if Icelanders did see it that way, because a lot of people likely exchange books on Christmas Eve and read through the holidays anyway.

If that’s your definition, then of course I’m participating. (The way my schedule turned out, I might spend Christmas Day writing a book review, and now I can call that a celebration!) Due to my rigid reading list, I don’t usually read books the moment I get them, but I might have to make an exception for the books on my wish list this year. Due to Iceland’s love of fantasy literature and adventure sagas, it seems like Jólabókaflóð is mostly all about fiction and dreaming of faraway places. I think they will forgive me for celebrating with nonfiction, however, in keeping with everyone putting their own spin on it.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into one of the most relaxed and cozy holiday traditions I’ve seen. Thank you to all the bloggers whose posts made amazing sources! Had you heard of Jólabókaflóð before this, and if not, what did you think of it? Will you be participating this year? Let me know!

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