Celebrating Iceland's Christmas Eve Book Flood Tradition

The Jólabókaflóð nourishes a culture of literacy and love of books.


Getting cozy on Christmas eve,

(biggunsband / Shutterstock.com)

For book lovers everywhere there is something magical about  the Jólabókaflóð, or book flood; Iceland’s Christmas eve tradition. It involves the gifting of books, reading, drinking hot cocoa and eating sweet treats. This is a perfect way to nourish Iceland’s culture of literacy and love of books, according to the Nordic Lighthouse blog.

The Nordic country of 370,000 people has a long history of folklore and storytelling and this has contributed to the country’s love of books. In fact, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world.

“We are a culture that’s obsessed with storytelling. It’s a national pastime,” Baldur Bjarnason, an author and researcher, told Smithsonian Magazine. “Meetings in Iceland tend to go over because everybody starts to tell a story or an anecdote at the drop of a hat.

“When an Icelandic parent asks their kid what happened at school today, they’re going to get a story with a beginning, middle and an end, probably with a climax and a turning point somewhere. Storytelling is how we process life.”

Humble beginnings
While storytelling goes back centuries, the Jólabókaflóð is not that old. It dates back to the second world war when Iceland was a newly independent nation with a wartime economy, according to Smithsonian magazine.

There was rationing on many items and that left very little choices in Christmas gifts. “But paper was one of the few commodities not rationed during the war — so paper was imported to produce books that were written and then printed in Iceland,” said Heiðar Ingi Svansson, president of the Icelandic Publishers Association.

For the 1944 holiday season, the Icelandic Publishers Association created the first Bókatíðindi, which translates to book news. Copies of the catalog were distributed free to every household in the country so people could pick the books they wanted to give as gifts. These gifts became a wartime holiday hit and remained popular for years and decades later.

The Bókatíðindi
The Bókatíðindi has been published every year since 1944. It is distributed in the fall to every home and a searchable edition is available online but the print copy is unlikely to be discontinued any time soon.

People happily await the new issues to arrive in the mail and complain if it is late. “On Facebook, there were people in the north part of Iceland saying, ‘I haven’t received my copy and I am talking to the postal service!’ Sometimes it amazes me, the demand from people just waiting for this catalog to arrive,” Svansson said.

By October, the book season is underway, according to the Nordic Lighthouse. There are readings and appearances from writers in bookstores, cafes, schools, and even in workplace cafeterias.

Christmas book giving accounts for 40 percent of annual book sales in Iceland. “The reason the book industry exists is the Christmas book flood,” Svansson told Smithsonian Magazine. “If you succeed there, that’s the core” of your success in Iceland.

While not everyone participates in the book flood, it is a tradition that celebrates the country’s love of reading and printed books. This Christmas tradition of getting cozy and reading is a wonderful way to spend a cold December night.

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