Iceland has a cozy ‘Christmas book flood’ reading tradition called Jolabokaflod

a woman is reading a book and holding coffee

If you’re looking for an excuse to wind down from all the holiday hustle this year, take a cue from Iceland. For decades now, this remote country has observed a tradition that’s tailor-made for book-lovers or anyone who wants to make sure their Christmas Eve is a silent night.

It’s called Jolabokaflod, which roughly translates from Icelandic as “Christmas book flood.” As part of the tradition, friends and loved ones in Iceland give each other a book on the night before Christmas. They then spend the rest of the night curled up with that book, ideally with a cup of hot cocoa (or something stronger).

Woman reading a book while holding hot drink in a cozy place

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We can’t think of anything simpler or cozier, and clearly Icelanders — whose culture was said to be sustained during the long years of the Little Ice Age by literature and poetry — love it.

Jolabokaflod is also a main driver for the publishing industry in that country, which is surprisingly robust. Ninety-three percent of Icelanders read a book every year, according to a 2013 study by Bifröst University, and about 50% read at least eight books annually.

In fact, half of all book sales in Iceland take place in the four months around Christmas, Heiðar Ingi Svansson, president of the Icelandic Publishers Association, told Smithsonian Magazine.

Around mid-November, the association mails out a catalog of new and popular literary titles called the Bokatidindi, or book bulletin, which kicks off a book-buying frenzy in anticipation of that year’s Jolabokaflod.

Iceland’s site explains how the tradition originally took hold during World War II. As in many countries, wartime rationing limited people’s options when it came to gift-giving, but paper was one of the materials that was still readily available. The giving of books then became an unofficial Christmas Eve pastime that is still enjoyed to this day.

One cup of cocoa and a book near the fireplace christmas leisure

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We’re hoping this tradition takes hold globally as a way to help parents de-stress and kids power down.

It’s worth noting, though, that Jolabokaflod isn’t the only Christmas tradition native to Iceland, or the quirkiest. There are the Yule Lads, who go around leaving candy and gifts in the shoes of good little children on the 13 nights leading up to the big night (and rotting potatoes in the shoes of the bad ones). Then you have the Yule Cat, who would (in early versions of the story) eat people who hadn’t received a gift of new clothes by Christmas Eve.

To sum up: Icelanders win at Christmas.

Books, Curiosity, Entertainment, Holiday & Seasonal
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About the Author
Tod Caviness
Tod covered everything from nightlife to Orlando's literary scene (yes, it has one) during his 11 years with the Orlando Sentinel. These days, he's a freelance journalist and recovering poet who lives in Central Florida with his lovely wife, two brilliant kids and one underachieving dog.

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