In Iceland, People Spend Christmas Eve Giving Each Other the Gift of Books
Get acquainted with the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóð, the “Christmas Book Flood.”
Image via (cc) Flickr user evanmischelle
“’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
So begins Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” the now-iconic poem whose recitation has become a Christmastime tradition since its first publication, in the early 1800s. In Iceland, however, the night before Christmas isn’t quite as motionless as Moore’s idyllic scene. There, Christmas eve is spent enjoying the national tradition of Jólabókaflóð, the “Christmas Book Flood.”
Rather than an occasion for gifting a variety of items, Christmas Eve in Iceland has been a night largely dedicated to the giving and receiving of books. This follows an annual sales push from that nation’s publishing houses between the months of September and December—a push that is responsible for a large percentage of Icelandic book sales, reportsThe Reykjavik Grapevine. There, a 2009 story on the tradition traces the literary gift-giving to World War II, explaining:
“Strict currency restrictions were imposed, so there wasn’t a lot of imported giftware. And Icelanders had quite a lot of money to spend in those days due to the economic upheaval during the war. The restrictions on imported paper were more lenient than on other products, so the book emerged as the Christmas present of choice”
According to Kristjan B. Jonasson, the book-giving culture “is very deeply rooted in how families perceive Christmas as a holiday.” Jonasson, former president of the Iceland Publishers Association, explained to NPR that “normally, we give the presents on the night of the 24th and people spend the night reading. In many ways, it's the backbone of the publishing sector here in Iceland.”
As The Reykjavik Grapevine pointed out, Jólabókaflóð is facilitated by the annual November publication of the bókatíðindi, a catalog of nearly every Icelandic book released that year, which is delivered to most of the country’s households. “It’s like the firing of the guns at the opening of the race,” researcher Baldur Bjarnason told NPR. “It’s not like this is a catalog that gets put in everybody’s mailbox and everybody ignores it. Books get attention here.”
In fact, for such a sparsely populated country (the population tops off at just over 300,000 people), Iceland is robustly book-obsessed. The nation’s capital city of Reykjavik has been named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization “City of Literature,” and plays host to both an international literary festival and an international children’s literature festival.
So if you’re still stuck trying to find a last-minute item for that hard-to-shop-for friend or family member, do what the Icelandic people do—give the gift of books.