We Should All Adopt This Holiday Tradition From Iceland

Get acquainted with Jolabokaflod, the "Yule book flood"

Books piled up in the shape of a Christmas tree.
The delightful practice dates back to post-WWII years.
PA Images via Getty Images

Iceland: land of ice, fire, glaciers and voracious readers.

The small nation has the most authors per capita in the world and publishes the most books per capita in the world (with five titles published for every 1,000 Icelanders). Some have even called reading a “national sport” in the country, as over half the population finishes eight or more titles a year. Oh, and: Katrin Jakobsdottir, the country’s current prime minister, literally published a crime fiction novel while in office.

Why is Iceland so obsessed with books? The affair dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries, when the prose narratives the Icelandic sagas were published. These were family stories, with perspectives on medieval Scandinavia, paganism and the settling of the Subarctic. So…literature is in Icelandic blood. (Plus, the Sagas were written in simple Old Icelandic, a language that Icelanders have no trouble understanding, with every incentive to preserve.)

However, a more recent phenomenon is responsible for Iceland’s modern love of books. That would be the Jolabokaflod, a delightful tradition that translates to the “Yule book flood,” which we should all give a try this year. We explain.

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What Is the Jolabokaflod?

In the years immediately after World War II, as protectionism prevailed in Europe, Icelanders looked for ways to spend their pocket money. (They suddenly had a lot of it — British and American occupation ended Great Depression unemployment and essentially vaulted the nation out of poverty.)

With continental treats and knickknacks harder to come by than usual, locals zeroed in on the one commodity they could purchase in droves: books. “The restrictions on imported paper were more lenient than on other products,” Icelandic writer Hildur Knutsdottir wrote here. “So the book emerged as the Christmas present of choice. And Icelanders have honored the tradition ever since.”

That “tradition” is simple: buy books for people you love. The Yule book flood kicks off with the free, nationwide distribution of the Bokatidindi, a catalog of recently published books that’s delivered for free to every home. On Christmas Eve, Icelanders give books to friends and family, then spend the rest of the evening reading and drinking hot cocoa. Receiving a book remains the best gift in Iceland today…and it better be a real, physical book — preferably hardcover, too.

Why We Love It

This has got to be one of the healthiest/most heartwarming traditions we’ve stumbled across in a minute. Here’s an incomplete list of why we love it:

  • It tethers Icelanders to a legacy that’s older than them, that’s worthy of preservation
  • It offers a low-stakes (and low-cost) way for everyone to participate in gifting
  • It brings people together while championing alone-time
  • It gets everyone — children and cynics, too — excited about reading
  • It can be easily adapted to any faith, celebration or season of giving

See if you can adopt it with your friends and family this year. Make it your own — you could go personal with your book selections, or bring/buy a book that means a lot to you, with your group swapping options until everyone’s happy. And don’t forget the best part — everyone reading, side by side, drinking molten chocolate (or something stronger). That’s about as good as it gets.

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