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Iceland Christmas Eve Tradition: Jolabokaflod

What is “Icelandic Book Flood” and How to Celebrate It

|November 17, 2023
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Jolabokaflod, translating to "Christmas Book Flood," is a unique and cherished tradition in Iceland, celebrated on Christmas Eve. This tradition involves giving and receiving new books, but its essence lies in the joy of reading them together.


Imagine a Christmas tradition combining a winter night's cozy warmth with the joy of a new book. In Iceland, this isn't just imagination; it's a beloved practice known as Jólabókaflóðið. This unique Christmas tradition reflects Iceland's profound love of literature and storytelling, a cultural cornerstone in this Nordic island nation.

Mom and children are reading a book at home on Christmas Day.

Cozy evenings, the joy of gifting, and the love of reading is the essence of Jolabokaflod, Iceland's cherished Christmas Eve book tradition.

WHAT IS JOLABOKAFLOD?

The Icelandic Christmas Eve tradition of Jólabókaflóð, or "Christmas Book Flood," is a unique and cherished cultural practice in Iceland, deeply rooted in the nation's love for literature and storytelling. In Iceland, ‘book flood’ is celebrated on Christmas Eve and revolves around giving and receiving new books, often accompanied by delicious treats like hot cocoa, Icelandic chocolates, or even a special beer. The night is spent in the company of loved ones, reading and sharing stories, creating memories that last a lifetime.

WHEN IS JOLABOKAFLOD IN ICELAND?

Happy family reading book at home by fireplace in warm and cozy living room on winter day.

A world of stories unfolds on Christmas Eve, reflecting the warmth of an Icelandic tradition that celebrates the literary soul of the holidays.

Jólabókaflóð happens on Christmas Eve, December 24th. This is when the magic truly unfolds, as Icelanders exchange books as gifts and spend the evening reading. It's a peaceful yet very cherished part of the Iceland Christmas traditions. In Iceland, Christmas is more than just a day - it's a whole season of festivity, starting from early December and lasting until the Twelfth Night on January 6th.

But Jólabókaflóð is just one piece of the Icelandic Christmas. If you're curious to dive deeper into Christmas in Iceland, from the Yule Lads to the Christmas Cat, check out this detailed blog post about Icelandic Christmas traditions. It's a window into a world of unique and enchanting customs that make an Icelandic Christmas truly unforgettable.

HOW TO PRONOUNCE JOLABOKAFLOD?

Do you find yourself tongue-tied trying to say "Jólabókaflóð"? Don't worry, you're not alone! This Icelandic word, which stands for the unique tradition of the 'Christmas Book Flood,' can be a bit of a mouthful. But with a few tips, you'll say it like a pro in no time.

So, here's the breakdown: It's pronounced: "yo-la-boke-uh-flowed." Another way to remember it is "yoh-l uh- boh-k uh-flawd, joh-." Think of the initial 'J' as more of an 'I' sound. Then, take your time with each syllable, almost as if you're saying "jolly book flood," but not quite​.

Now, give it a try. With some practice, you'll impress your friends and family with your perfect Jolabokaflod pronunciation!

 

HISTORY OF JOLABOKAFLOD

The Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóð, or the 'Christmas Book Flood,' is a unique cultural phenomenon with roots deeply connected with the nation’s history and literary heritage. This beloved tradition emerged during World War II, an era marked by economic constraints and strict currency restrictions across Europe. In Iceland, these conditions and the relative leniency on paper imports made books an accessible and highly valued gift choice. Unlike other commodities, paper was not rationed in Iceland during the war, paving the way for books to become the preferred Christmas gift.

The tradition's official start was in 1944, aligning with Iceland’s break from Denmark. This year saw the debut of 'Bókatíðindi' (the Book Bulletin), a catalog listing new books for the Christmas season and sent free to Icelandic homes, igniting the festive book-giving spirit.

But Iceland's story-loving roots reach further back, to the 9th century. The celebrated Icelandic Sagas, epic narratives from the 12th to 15th centuries, were first passed down orally before being written, embodying the essence of Icelandic culture and the longstanding storytelling tradition.

Contrary to some beliefs, Jólabókaflóð wasn't a formal tradition in the 1930s nor a literacy campaign. In fact, by the 20th century, Iceland had already boasted one of the world's highest literacy rates.

Nowadays, Jólabókaflóðið is a cozy, heartwarming part of Icelandic Christmas traditions. It is a time when families and friends come together to share the joy of literature, exchanging books on Christmas Eve and spending the night reading. It makes the holiday season in Iceland extra special – a time for connecting with loved ones and diving into some great reads.

couple gifting books on Christmas evening

Jólabókaflóð makes the holiday season in Iceland extra special – a time for connecting with loved ones and diving into some great reads.

WHY DO ICELANDERS LOVE BOOKS?

Iceland's love affair with books is deeply rooted in its culture and history. With a near 100% literacy rate, Icelanders don't just read – they immerse themselves in literature. This nation leads the world in terms of writers, books published, and books read per person. Imagine this: about 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime, and ⅓ of the Icelandic population reads books daily! That's impressive and reflects their deep-seated passion for writing and storytelling.

This rich literary culture has historic beginnings. Back in 1786, when the first Icelandic library was established, schools were scarce. Icelanders turned to books for self-education, nurturing a love of learning that has thrived.

Fast forward to the present, and you'll find that reading remains a cornerstone of Icelandic life. Nearly every home in Iceland – 97% of them, to be exact – houses at least one book. The excitement around Jólabókaflóð, the Christmas Book Flood, is noticeable, especially for children eagerly anticipating book presents from their parents. But the magic happens on Christmas Eve when families gather to unwrap and dive into new books together.

In 2021 alone, Iceland published an astounding 834 fiction titles. For a country with a population of just over 360,000, these numbers are remarkable, underscoring the significance of literature and storytelling in Icelandic society.

Recent trends in reading habits provide further insights. A survey by the Icelandic Literature Center revealed an increase in average reading – 2.3 books per person per month, up from 2. This uptick is particularly significant among women and families with children. Young Icelanders are increasingly exploring literature in languages other than Icelandic, and audiobooks have become popular.

FACTS ABOUT ICELANDERS AND BOOKS

  • Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country, with around 80% of its annual book sales happening during the Jólabókaflóð period​.
  • The 'kvöldvaka' tradition of evening storytelling and reading has been vital for education and literacy since Iceland's early days.
  • Icelanders read an average of 2.3 books per month, with women and families with children being the most avid readers​.
  • Icelandic youth frequently read in languages other than Icelandic.
  • A vast majority, or 76%, of Icelanders believe that it is essential for Icelandic literature to have access to public support and funding​.
family reading book together on Christmas

The excitement around Jólabókaflóð, the Christmas Book Flood, is noticeable, especially for children eagerly anticipating book presents from their parents.

ICELANDIC BOOK TRADITION - FINAL THOUGHTS

Today, Jólabókaflóð remains a cherished Icelandic holiday tradition during Christmas in Iceland. It's a time for families to come together, share new books, and bask in the warmth of shared stories. This tradition is about more than just gifting; it's about fostering a love for reading and spending quality time with loved ones. While novels, cookbooks, children's books, and even textbooks are popular choices, any book can be part of this tradition. And a fun twist - books are often wrapped in traditional Icelandic paper, and finding a book with an insect inside is seen as a stroke of good luck.

woman wrapping a book as Christmas present

While novels, cookbooks, children's books, and even textbooks are popular choices, any book can be part of this tradition.

ICELANDIC TRADITIONS DURING CHRISTMAS - FAQ

How does Iceland celebrate Christmas?

Iceland celebrates Christmas with festive decorations, family gatherings, traditional Icelandic Christmas food, Christmas beers, and unique customs like the Icelandic Yule Lads and Jólabókaflóð.

What is the meaning of Jolabokaflod?

Jolabokaflod meaning is 'Christmas Book Flood,' referring to the tradition of exchanging books on Christmas Eve.

What is the Jolabokaflod tradition in Iceland?

It's the tradition of giving books as gifts on Christmas Eve and spending the evening reading.

What are some interesting facts about Jolabokaflod?

It began during WWII due to paper not being rationed, and now it's a beloved tradition where books are the main Christmas gift.

Does Iceland exchange books on Christmas Eve?

Yes, exchanging books is a vital part of the Icelandic Christmas Eve traditions.

What do people in Iceland give on Christmas Eve?

Books are the most common gift, often accompanied by chocolate.

What is the Yule book tradition?

It's another term for Jólabókaflóð, where books are given and read on Christmas Eve.

What is the origin of the word Jolabokaflod?

It's Icelandic, 'Jóla' meaning Christmas and 'bókaflóð' meaning book flood.

Why does Iceland have 13 days of Christmas?

It's tied to the folklore of the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads, each visiting children on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. Learn more about it in our Icelandic Christmas guide.

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