The beautiful Icelandic tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve

woman reading
CC BY 2.0 Steve Bissonette

Book lovers will want to adopt this lovely holiday tradition, which melds literary and holiday pleasures into a single event.

Icelanders have a beautiful tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the night reading. This custom is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it is the reason for the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” when the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.

At this time of year, most households receive an annual free book catalog of new publications called the Bokatidindi. Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy, fueling what Kristjan B. Jonasson, president of the Iceland Publishers Association, describes as “the backbone of the publishing industry.”

"It's like the firing of the guns at the opening of the race," says Baldur Bjarnason, a researcher who has written about the Icelandic book industry. "It's not like this is a catalog that gets put in everybody's mailbox and everybody ignores it. Books get attention here."

The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary. They love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world… One in 10 Icelanders will publish [a book].”

It seems there is more value placed on physical, paper books than in North America, where e-books have grown in popularity. One bookstore manager told NPR, “The book in Iceland is such an enormous gift, you give a physical book. You don't give e-books here." The book industry is driven by the majority of people buying several books each year, rather than the North American pattern of a few people buying lots of books.

When I asked an Icelandic friend what she thought of this tradition, she was surprised.

“I hadn't thought of this as a special Icelandic tradition. It is true that a book is always considered a nice gift. Yes, for my family this is true. We are very proud of our authors.”

It sounds like a wonderful tradition, perfect for a winter evening. It is something that I would love to incorporate into my own family’s celebration of Christmas. I doubt my loyalty to physical books will ever fade; they are the one thing I can’t resist collecting, in order to read and re-read, to beautify and personalize my home, to pass on to friends and family as needed. Combining my love for books and quiet, cozy Christmas Eves sounds like a perfect match.

Tags: Books | Christmas | Gifts | Holidays | Iceland

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