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Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Andrea Hunt

Picture this. It’s Christmas eve, and your family has gathered to give each other books, then cozy up for an evening of reading and hot chocolate. (Maybe throw in a roaring fire and marshmallows for good measure). Sound almost too good to be true? Meet the Icelandic Yule tradition of Jolabokaflod, which means “Christmas book flood”—a festive celebration of reading and simple pleasures.  

The tradition has been going strong for more than 75 years in Iceland. Over the last few years, it’s been capturing imaginations beyond the Nordic island, resonating with book lovers and those seeking a more conscious holiday experience versus unsustainable consumption. After all, what could beat giving loved ones, and especially your children, the gift of reading—and all the treasured memories that go along with it?

So, if you’ve been searching for fun and rewarding Christmas traditions for kids—and grown-ups—this holiday season, maybe it’s time to start your own Jolabokaflod. But what exactly does it consist of? How should you go about it? 

This article will answer those questions. As with so many of the best ideas, its appeal lies in its simplicity. 

The Story of Jolabokaflod, the “Christmas Book Flood”

Iceland is a nation of readers, boasting one of the highest literacy rates in the world (99 percent) and more published books per capita than almost any other country. Its literary heritage stretches back through the ages to the famous Norse myths and sagas recorded on the island in medieval times, and it remains at the core of Icelandic cultural identity today. Stories have been a flame to see its people through the long, dark nights of their far-north winter. No wonder, then, that it was there that such a strong book-giving Christmas tradition took root.    

In 1944, paper was one of the few commodities that wasn’t heavily rationed due to World War II, yet Icelanders had money to spend on Christmas gifts. The solution? Going all-in on books as gifts. The publishing trade sent a “Book Bulletin” catalogue to every household to make placing Christmas book orders extra easy, and so the Jolabokaflod tradition was born.  

Fast-forward to today and the Book Bulletin still goes out every year during the Reykjavík Book Fair in November—alongside a flurry of literary events—marking the beginning of the “Christmas book flood” season. It’s a time when books become the talk of the nation. 

Iceland’s literary scene is thriving, its authors published in translation throughout the world (Nordic noir is an especially popular genre). Writers are respected. Supposedly one in 10 Icelanders eventually write a book. And there is even an Icelandic saying: “Everyone has a book in their stomach,” meaning “everyone gives birth to a book.” In 2011, Reykjavík was the first city with a native language other than English to become an UNESCO City of Literature. 

The ripple effect of Jolabokaflod has had a lasting and profound impact on Iceland’s people, arts, and economy.  

The Joy of Jolabokaflod and Book Gifts for Christmas

These days, the “Christmas Book Flood” may come with more marketing hype and author competition than when it first started out, but its spirit remains true to Icelanders’ deep love of books and stories, perhaps best summed up by people who grew up with it

As author Hallgrímur Helgason puts it, “Thanks to Jolabokaflod, books still matter in Iceland, they get read and talked about. Excitement fills the air. Every reading is crowded, every print-run is sold … At the average Christmas party people push politics and the Kardashians aside and discuss literature.” 

Gerður Kristný—Icelandic poet, novelist and children’s writer—recalls, “I have always been given books for Christmas. I remember vividly being an 11-year-old getting nine books that year! Looking at the pile I felt very grown up.”

“Nothing has prepared me better for life than the books I read as a child,” continues Kristný. “They taught me what kind of a world I wanted to live in as an adult and how I could be a part of making it fair and just. They also showed me into worlds I would never otherwise have entered.”

In today’s economically unpredictable times, books remain one of the more affordable luxuries—small investments that deliver rich rewards. And, as well as providing opportunities for relaxing holiday downtime and enjoying the benefits of reading together, bringing books into the heart of your Christmas family tradition gives your children a powerful, and long-lasting message: that books are special and reading matters. 

Are you ready to include Jolabokaflod in your Christmas traditions?       

How to Hold Your Own “Christmas Book Flood” this Holiday

One of the lovely things about Jolabokaflod is you can go as big or small as you feel like.

In the run-up, get your kids excited by talking about your “Christmas Book Flood” and encouraging them to suggest ideas for making the evening special. You could ask them to share their “wishes” for books or book themes, browse bookstores together, or attend some children’s author events in your area. In turn, ask them to choose a book for you or another family member to read. Want some instant inspiration for choosing great children’s reads? Check out our book lists!

Remember this is your Jolabokaflod, so if you don’t want to buy your books new, you don’t have to. You could find your books in a thrift store or book market, or even pass on a treasured book of your own. Nor do you need to stick to the literal meaning of the expression and “flood” your family with books. A Secret Santa-style exchange, with each person giving and receiving just one book each, can work just as well.  

On the day, take time to savor the celebration. Get creative with wrapping. Prepare snacks and hot chocolate together. Make your reading chairs and book nooks extra cozy with throws and cushions, and add the twinkle of fairy lights. 

Find ways, too, to personalize the book-giving—people might want to inscribe and date the books they’re giving, or share why they chose a particular title. Then enjoy snuggling up together and poring over those lovely new reads!

In the days that follow your “Christmas Book Flood,” keep the book love flowing! Talk about the books you each received and read. And why not try some book-related craft activities and games? These can enrich the experience, as well as provide fun, screen-free holiday time and further learning opportunities. Maybe everyone could write a short review or draw a picture about their book—these could be turned into a collage or kept in a Jolabokaflod box that comes out every year. 

However you choose to celebrate it, the “Christmas Book Flood” might just end up becoming one of your family’s favorite holiday traditions for many winter seasons to come. Happy book giving!

Will you try Jolabokaflod? What books are you gifting this year? 

Andrea Hunt is a writer, editor, and storytimer who shares and reviews picture books in the margins of work and family life (@hellobookcub on Instagram).