For the past few years, my wife and I have participated in the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood. I don’t know where I first came across this tradition, but the internet articles I read universally agreed that it involves gifting books to your loved ones on Christmas Eve so they can spend the evening reading. What could be better?
However, a question nagged at me each year as we picked out books for Jólabókaflóð, the question of authenticity. Is this a real tradition in Iceland? Or is this obscure, out-of-practice, or even mythological, like the idea that the Inuits have 400 words for snow? Apparently, the practice began during WWII when most materials were rationed. Most materials but not paper.
My internet research turned up mostly American’s offering boiler-plate descriptions, and while they all confirmed what I had read, I still didn’t know if this practice really went back to WWII rationing, if it had continued to the present, or if it was a large or a niche part of Icelandic society.
Therefore, I decided to start contacting actual Icelanders. With the use of my email address, Google search, and Google translate, I set out to find the true nature of Jólabókaflóð.
My first stop was the library in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and largest city. They referred me to Félag Íslenskra Bókaútgefenda, or the Icelandic Publishers Association. Within no time, I found myself trading emails with Heiðar Ingi Svansson, President of the association.
According to Svansson, Jólabókaflóð isn’t just a part of Icelandic culture, it’s integral to the country’s publishing industry. November and December alone account for 42% of the country’s book sales each year. When you add October, that percentage jumps to 56%! Its impact doesn’t stop with sales.
“This tradition and its season are the highlight and a climax for the whole book cultural sector in Iceland,” Svansson said. “That means that many new titles are published during this time and the effect of that is a lot of book-related events…authors signings and readings in coffeehouses and bars, publishing launch parties, etc.”
Were its origins as dramatic as the American articles and social media posts I’d read?
“This tradition began during World War II once Iceland had gained its independence from Denmark in 1944,” he confirmed. “Because of bad economy and depression, there were…very strict restrictions on many things you could import. And that limited very much the selection of commodity goods that you could choose as Christmas gifts. But fortunately, 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. By doing that, Icelanders shared their love of books even more as other types of gifts were in very short supply.”
Being an American, I am always cautious when it comes to cultural appropriation. This was another stumbling block between me and the full adoption of the practice. What would the Icelanders think of me bestowing books upon my loved ones, me with not a drop of Nordic blood?? I decided to ask one.
Svansson, for one, didn’t even realize Americans were beginning to practice Jólabókaflóð.
“But personally, I’m very happy to hear and I find it both very surprising and interesting…maybe we should put some more emphasis on spreading the good word more on an international level.”
Iceland holds two important events each year around this time.
“The first one is the Icelandic Literary Awards [which our association founded]. Its patron is the President of Iceland,” Svansson explained. “The prize was formed in 1989 and has ever since played a very important role in our Book and literary culture…books are nominated each year in three groups with a nomination ceremony 1st of December and then the winners are introduced in late January the year after.”
The second event is a book fair in late November.
“Publishers and authors introduce and sell new titles. It is accompanied by a diverse literature program for kids and adults. Unfortunately, we had to cancel this event last year and this year as well. Instead, there were some book-related online events.”
After a week of research and going straight to the source, I’m happy to report that Jólabókaflóð is alive and well, and we Americans are officially invited!
Need some ideas on what to give this year? These mysteries are a perfect fit!