In the United States, there is some disagreement about when, precisely, the Christmas season starts. Extremely conservative estimates might say it starts at the beginning of Advent, some might declare the first of December to be the official start of the season, while increasingly many of us seem to have settled on the discount-fueled pandemonium of Black Friday as our starter pistol. In Iceland, on the other hand, there is no such ambiguity. The Christmas season begins with the annual November distribution of the Bokatidindi—the catalog that lists almost all of the books that will be published in Iceland during the coming two months.
At this point you might be wondering how this could possibly indicate the start of the Christmas season in such stark terms. Well, there are a few reasons, but the most important is that for many decades books have been the Christmas presents of choice throughout Iceland. In fact, the practice is so culturally ingrained that the stereotypical Icelandic Christmas Eve involves each family exchanging their literary gifts and then curling up silently to read their new books.
As a result of this tradition, almost all of Iceland’s publishing happens in the two months leading up to Christmas, with only “blockbusters” like a new Harry Potter (1997-2007) or Twilight (2005-2008) translation likely to be published at any other time of year. This two month period of wintry literary deluge (and the capstone gift exchange that marks its culmination) is known, affectionately, as Jolabokaflod: the Christmas book flood.
Now, for those of you who know a thing or two about Iceland, this practice might not come as much of a surprise. The official lore tells us that the practice of giving books as Christmas gifts began during World War II, when restrictions on paper goods were less lenient than many other wartime restrictions, meaning that books were much easier to acquire than most other giftable items.
But even without this backstory, it’s easy to imagine this tradition developing in one of the world’s most bookish and literary countries. Though Icelandic as a language is essentially limited in use to the island-nation’s population, UNESCO recognizes Reykjavík, its capital, as a City of Literature. According to NPR: “Iceland has a long literary history dating to medieval times. Landmarks of world literature, including the Sagas of the Icelanders and the Poetic Edda, are still widely read and translated there, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.”
In 2012, Iceland published more than 800 different books. With a population just around 300,000, that number represents a books per capita more than double that of the United States, and higher than every country except the U.K. And those books aren’t languishing on the shelves, either. A recent study showed that half of Icelanders read at least eight books a year, and more than ninety percent of the population will read at least one book in a given year. Compare this to the U.S., where most of the book buying comes from a relatively small number of individual buyers. Books are such vaunted objects that it was only fairly recently that softcover books started to gain some ground on pricier and more enduring hardbacks (eBooks are virtually unheard of). And this is before we even consider library books. Reykjavík’s City Library loaned out more than 1 million volumes in 2009, which is an average of five books per year for each of the city’s 200,000 residents.
Whether it’s because of long centuries of literary tradition, or a thriving contemporary publishing industry, the annual publishing catalog (which is distributed to every household in the country for free) remains a marquee event, one that residents anticipate and discuss as the autumn nights lengthen into near-constant darkness. The holidays become a season not just of family and overeating, but of serious literary conversation.
Here at the Books Tell You Why blog, we can hardly think of anything better. In fact, we really can't think of anything better than giving books as gifts (after all, they say you should treat others the way you want to be treated). Hopefully Iceland’s Jolabokaflod tradition becomes more widely known in the U.S. and elsewhere. We'd love to hear of more and more people curled up with a new book on Christmas Eve, leisurely flipping through fire-lit pages.
P.S. If you're wondering how to accurately pronounce Jolabokaflod, click here.