Jólabókaflód: A Christmas tradition worth experiencing.

Gleðileg jól frá Give a Book

Trips to the ice rink, decorating the tree and carolling followed by mulled wine and mince pies are a few typical Christmas traditions you’ll find in this country. This year, however, I’ve decided to look further afield, to see what communities in other cultures share during this festive period. In true Give a Book fashion, it was not long until I discovered a tradition that revolved around books and the pleasure of reading.

In Iceland on Christmas Eve, the country spends the evening taking part in Jólabókaflód, loosely translated into English as the ‘Christmas book flood.’ Icelanders spend the night gifting books to one another before curling up with a cup of cocoa or a tipple of jólabland (alcohol free ale) and diving into a brand new book. Quite the idyllic haven on a cold winter’s night.

So where did it come from…

Jólabókaflód was coined in 1944. Paper was one of the commodities that was not rationed in Iceland as it was across other parts of Europe during WWII. The gift of a book was resourceful and fitting as writing and storytelling have always been part of the fabric of Icelandic society, going back to the ‘Edda,’ the old Norse work of literature written in the 13th century. These were the stories of the early settlers and a marker of Iceland’s literary culture. They served as a comfort to Icelanders over subsequent years where they endured hardships due to natural disaster and oppression from colonial powers. Storytelling of their ancestors during the long dark winters known as kvöldvaka, was not only a form of entertainment but how children would learn about their history whilst learning how to read and write. From kvöldvaka grew Jólabókaflód. Icelanders got drunk on literature and turned out a country of bookaholics. To this day, books and a love of reading are an intrinsic part of Iceland’s culture and national identity and how they have kept their history alive.

Since Jólabókaflód came onto the scene, the Icelandic book trade has published a yearly katíðindi (‘Book Bulletin’, in English) which is distributed round the homes to help people decide on which books to gift. In 2015, Christopher Norris a pioneer of World Book Day encouraged people all over the world to experience Jólabókaflód in a series of articles and blogs. He then launched a crowdfunding campaign to build better connections with Icelandic literature by seeking funds for UK libraries to spend on books translated into English by Icelandic authors.

 What we can learn from experiencing Jólabókaflód…

This tradition promotes book buying and reading within the same initiative. Reading does not have to be a solitary activity but something that can be enjoyed and experienced in the company of others. Whilst the physical act of reading is an individual experience, it is not limited to that. As social beings, we take comfort in the ability to share our experiences with others and what we take away from a book, others may not. Thus, books spark a conversation and Jólabókaflód is the perfect example of bringing the solitary act of reading into the social realm.

Iceland gives a lot of time and energy into promoting books and reading. In the media, lots of space and airtime is given to books reviews, discussions and interviews with authors and even debates on book covers. What we experience between the pages of a book sends our imagination into overdrive. In a society that promotes and adores this pastime, it’s no wonder a nation of book lovers was born. This buzz and excitement around books will encourage people to frequent bookshops and take pleasure in reading.

The Give a Book team’s choices on what they would gift this Jólabókaflód:

Victoria- Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell. This is an American novel written in the late 1950’s and is the story of the suburban life of Mrs Bridge. `I suppose it’s a tragicomedy. It’s droll, ironic and intensely empathetic. The short sharp chapters– vignettes like film scenes– show up the gaps between perception and reality, will and submission, hope and time. It’s also exquisitely written, laugh out-loud funny and quietly devastating. There is really nothing like it.

Sarah M- William Maxwell was born in 1908 and died in 2000.  He was an American editor, novelist, short story writer, essayist, children’s author and memoirist.   And I’d never heard of him until this year. So Long, See You Tomorrow is in fact two stories: about an adulterous relationship that split two families and culminated with a murder, and about a man’s childhood memories, a friendship and struggling with loss, regrets and guilt.    This short book is special, not a word is wasted, beautifully written – I have already given it as a present twice and will definitely do so at Christmas.

Ali- The Final Year by Matt Goodfellow. This is a book that has sold out through word of mouth, via X and Instagram and wherever book bloggers and teachers gather. It’s the story of Nate in his final year at primary school – the year that is the toughest, the stepping stone to high school, revision and SATs and change and nothing will ever be the same. Nate is the eldest of three boys, his mum means well but life is hard and the Bingo calls her most nights.  Nate looks after his brothers and cares for her as well. He is navigating a tricky time with his best mate PS who is in the other year 6 class and is now friends with Turner. What saves Nate is his ability to write and his new teacher, the fantastic Mr Joshua. He manages to make year 6 fun and interesting and allows the children time to breathe and read – their class read is Skellig by David Almond – another fantastic book. His littlest brother aka the Turbo Terror gets really sick, Nate finds out who his friends are and how words can hold things together. The illustrations bring the story to life, the voice of Nate is so authentic and all the way through you are just hoping for a miracle.

Mima-The Waiter by Matias Faldbakken. A perfect book for lovers of ‘fly on the wall’ literature. If 2020 has taught us anything it’s to step back and observe the bigger picture, exactly what the waiter does in this novella. Set against the backdrop of Oslo’s most prestigious restaurant, this microcosm permits the waiter to observe and judge his clientele on the worlds stage.

Sarah T- My chosen book is Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, set in Ireland in the 1980s and in the days leading up to Christmas. Bill Furlong is a coal merchant and a seemingly ordinary man whose priorities are his business and providing for his wife and five daughters. But when he discovers a terrible secret at the heart of the community he has to make a decision that could destroy his life. The book is a small miracle that combines horror and heroism and is completely gripping.

Sam- Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. This book is unlike anything I have ever read. It’s mysterious, atmospheric, and deeply strange yet totally gripping and uniquely heart-warming. Told through diary entries, you explore Piranesi’s house – a labyrinth of infinite corridors, staircases and statues, plagued by random unexplained flash floods. Alone apart from a man known only as ‘The Other’,  understanding his home is Piranesi’s entire life… until he discovers evidence of another person. This book is brilliantly odd and the perfect short read to completely lose yourself in.

From all of us at Give a Book, we wish you a Merry Jólabókaflód and a Happy New Year!


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