Jólabókaflóð: A Christmas Tradition

Jólabókaflóð: A Christmas Tradition

by Susan DeLay

It’s Christmas Eve. Late. The children are nestled all snug in their beds, or at least quietly playing video games as X-box sucks their brains out. While I realize thousands of parents are reading “some assembly required” instructions printed in Chinese and are hoping to get a special toy put together before the sun comes up. I am not one of them.

As my last official act before Christmas Day, I have slipped into something comfortable—warm, fuzzy socks and a long-sleeved fleece lounger with a hoodie and kangaroo pockets.

And it’s time. 

It’s time to dive headfirst into a brand new book. Not an e-book. Not a paperback. It’s a 448-page hard cover novel called The Occupied by attorney/novelist Craig Parshall. And when I crack open the pages, I am greeted with the heady scent of ink on paper. Ahhh.

There’s nothing like starting a new thriller as Christmas Eve melts into Christmas morning. I have to admit, at times like this, I wonder if I might have a little Icelandic blood in my heritage.

Yule Book Flood

On December 24, all across the small island nation of Iceland, citizens of all ages usher in Jólabókaflóð. Jólabókaflóð (pronounced o-la-bok-a-flot) translates to Yule Book Flood—an all-book holiday that occurs each year on Christmas Eve. As part of the tradition, Icelanders give and receive books, and then, they spend the evening reading. Parents read to children. Adults read (to themselves—hopefully). And the way it plays out in my head, it all takes place in cozy cabins with snow on the rooftops, roaring fires in hearths and accompanying glasses of wine or cups of cocoa (with marshmallows). Sigh.

Thanks, Hitler

The custom began during World War II when the country saw a restriction in imports from foreign countries. Teddy bears and nutcrackers weren’t too popular considering they were from Germany, home of the Nazis. Importing and exporting was difficult what with all those Nazi U-boats and wolfpacks patrolling the high seas of the Atlantic.

Because Iceland isn’t exactly a hotbed of manufacturing, options for exchanging gifts was limited. The small country did, however, have inexpensive paper available. And where there’s paper, there’s ink. As the year drew to an end, publishers blitzed the marketplace with books, and Iceland's residents turned to gifting loved ones with books. The practice continued long after the war ended as Jólabókaflóð went from being a way to adjust to the shortages created by war to becoming a long-standing tradition that has helped define the country’s population as one of the most well-read in the world.

Icelanders read how many books?

While Icelanders devote the biggest holiday of the year to book giving, reading continues throughout the year. Two-thirds of the country’s 300,000-plus population live in the capital city of Reykjavík where the library loans out almost 1.5 million books a year, which is more than six books a year for every man, woman and child.

Instead of reality shows putting under a microscope the lives of bejeweled housewives, people who are famous for being famous or a bachelor/bachelorette’s glamorous search for a spouse, Icelanders watch Kiljan, their own brand of reality TV that’s solely about books.

In Iceland, 93% of the population reads at least one book per year. In comparison, only 73% of Americans read one book each year. No wonder Iceland’s capital city was dubbed a UNESCO City of Literature.

Rumor has it every Icelander is born with a dream—not to become President or explore space, or make it to the NBA, but to write a book. And about 50 percent of them make that dream come true.

Pass the Pinot

IMHO, the world would be a far better place if, on Christmas Eve, everyone turned off TV, put aside the earbuds and smartphones and read a book. Let there be Jólabókaflóð on earth…and let it begin with me.

Please hand me my book and pass the pinot noir.

Happy Jólabókaflóð!

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