Prepare to meet your new favorite Christmas Eve tradition.
It’s called Jólabókaflóð—the Yule Book Flood—and it is celebrated every year in Iceland. It all began in World War II. After Iceland declared independence from Denmark in 1944, money was tight. Foreign imports were limited, but domestic paper was cheap. Since the country’s publishing industry could not afford to publish books year-round, instead they released all of their new titles leading up to the holiday and a new tradition was born.
Ever since then, the people of Iceland have spent the month of November perusing the pages of the Bókatíðindi, the Christmas book catalog from the national publishing association featuring all of the new titles published that year. Then, on Christmas Eve, families exchange books, and spend the evening reading and drinking hot chocolate or a festive ale called jólabland. As with all traditions, every family does it a little differently. It is common to give books to one’s children, though parents are not the only ones doing the giving. Most people receive multiple books for the holiday, from multiple people. Usually, everyone settles in to read quietly to themselves in the late hours of Christmas Eve, but I imagine that families with young children will also read aloud.
It’s not an accident that this tradition took off in Iceland. Icelanders are some of the biggest bookworms in the world, reading more books per capita than any other country in the world. They are also some of the most prolific writers: One in every 10 natives has published his or her own title.
We would do well to take a page out of Iceland’s book. Reading is not only fun, it’s good for you! It can help us to detox from social media, learn about others’ experiences, and build emotional intimacy with loved ones. It is also a great gift to give your children. Reading aloud is the number one way to jumpstart their cognitive development, and it’s a wonderful way to bond with kids of all ages.
Lucky for us, this is a relatively easy tradition to incorporate into even the busiest holiday schedule. Many families already exchange a gift (or two, or three) the night before Christmas—why not exchange books instead? The hardest part, of course, is choosing the right title.
The Verily archives include lots of good recommendations. Our Winter Survival Guide includes five cozy reads with teas to match, in case you prefer it to cocoa. If you would rather read out loud together, especially if there are young children in your household, check out these holiday short stories which you can enjoy in one sitting. Or, in the spirit of the original Icelandic tradition, you might want to purchase a book that was published in the past calendar year. In that case, check out the Goodreads Best Books list (here’s the list for 2020). And you cannot go wrong exchanging wishlists in advance. That way, you know you will be getting the one you love something they will truly enjoy!
Another way to make your Yule Book Flood more authentic is to buy local. Iceland is a small country with a small economy, so the annual celebration makes a huge difference for the publishing industry’s bottom line. Take this as an opportunity to shop local and support used and indie bookstores.
If you don’t have the time or opportunity to frequent a local brick and mortar store, check out Bookshop.org, a company that lets you shop online while supporting small businesses. You can also browse Thriftbooks.com, which offers some of the best prices around, free shipping on orders over $25, and a simple rewards program that will let you earn free books (as a grad student on a budget, I love this added perk!). And then there’s Powell’s Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore, which conveniently ships nationwide. You can’t beat their virtually unlimited stock, and their stationery, games, and socks also make great stocking stuffers.
There is nothing like a good book to raise one’s spirits in the middle of winter, and doing so alongside the people you love sounds like the ideal Christmas to me. Complete the scene with a themed playlist, and you are all set. So stoke the fire, pour yourself a drink, and get reading!