This Year, Celebrate Jólabókaflóð

Audrey Vertovec
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December 11, 2020

There's always a spark of magic in the air on Christmas Eve, no matter your age. It's one of the few moments in the year when it feels as though time has stopped and there's a glimmer of enchantment, gratitude, and peace. It's a night that we look forward to all year and the Icelandic holiday of Jólabókaflóð, the tradition of gifting books and eating chocolate together on Christmas Eve, has an innate ability to make the evening even more magical.  

A holiday tradition for book lovers

The tradition of Jólabókaflóð (pronounced yo-la-bok-a-flod), or Book Flood, began during World War II when imports were limited due to currency restrictions in Iceland. So, Icelanders made do with what they had – paper. The book emerged as the Christmas present of choice and Icelanders have honored the tradition by gifting books on Christmas Eve ever since.

"Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world, and the bulk of book sales happens [during the holidays], “ says Alda Sigmundsdóttir, a local on Guide To Iceland. The Bókatíðindi, or annual book catalog, is delivered to each household ahead of the holiday season, and Icelanders can barely contain their excitement. Friends and families compare their book wish lists, excited for the upcoming "Christmas Book Flood," and even the news reports on which books are doing the best in the market.

If you’re considering adopting this holiday, it really is the gift that keeps on giving, Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir said in an interview with Read It Forward. "I think giving a book as a present is more thoughtful than many other things because you really need to put a lot of consideration into the selection. It's not only a feel-good present to get, but also to give since you know you're contributing to the receiver's intellect and broader perspective."

Celebrating the Book Flood at home

When selecting books for your friends and family members this Jólabókaflóð, it’s important to keep their interests in mind, or to choose a book that reminds you of them. 

It can be especially overwhelming if you have a long list of recipients to buy books for, so BookClub recommends starting by taking a look at your bookshelf and picking out all of the books that you enjoyed, or the books that remind you of them. No matter what you choose, make sure you keep with tradition and purchase a physical book. 

"The book in Iceland is such an enormous gift, you give a physical book. You don't give e-books here," Bryndís Loftsdottir, a project manager for Icelandic Penninn-Eymundsson bookstores told NPR.

I believe that a beloved book becomes inscribed on your soul when you read it for the first time. When you give that title to a loved one, you are giving them a piece of you, something that you treasure, with hopes they enjoyed the journey as much as you did. To commemorate this, write an inscription on the inside cover, explaining what the book meant to you and why it made you think of them. Be sure to include the year, as it will become a keepsake of memories spent reading together during Jólabókaflóð.

For a different approach, turn Jólabókaflóð into a white elephant game. Have everyone bring their favorite book wrapped up and ask them to write a short blurb on the cover with the book's genre. Next, everyone will take turns picking out a book they think they would enjoy based on the cover blurb (written by the gifter!). Once opened, if they have already read the book, they must trade with another recipient. 

If you haven't adopted this holiday tradition already, this season is the perfect time to begin celebrating Jólabókaflóð.

To put your family in the Jólabókaflóð spirit, have dinner together and change into comfy pajamas. Make a pillow fort and string up twinkly lights to make the occasion extra special. Turn on your fireplace, or pull up a digital fireplace to stream on your television if you don’t already have one.

If you’re celebrating the holidays remotely this year, as so many are, consider drawing names ahead of a Zoom party and sending the person whose name you draw a book you select for them. Make sure to wait to open the books until you’re all on camera, cozied up at home with your favorite holiday beverage.   

As any book lover knows, no reading extravaganza is complete without a heap of libations. Honor the tradition of Jólabókaflóð with a spread of confections. As a family, make personalized hot chocolate bombs with everyone's favorite cocoa mix-ins or set up a hot chocolate bar. Put out trays of Christmas cookies or an array of your family's favorite snacks, or make literary-themed cocktails. Finger foods are essential as it's hard to balance a fork and knife with a book in your hand. 

Once everyone is settled in, cozy up and read together! Happy Holidays!


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