The month of December sees celebrations worldwide taking many different forms, such as Christian rituals of tree decorating and gift giving and the Jewish tradition of lighting the menorah. Regardless of your spiritual affiliations (or lack thereof), Iceland's Christmas-time tradition is one we all should support. Why? Because it revolves around BOOKS!
Don't get me wrong... Icelandics love their books all year round. In a country with a population of around only 360,000 people, the Reykjavík City Library in the capital sees approximately 1.5 million book loans a year! This may be partly due to the country's unusual publication practices. Rather than releasing new titles throughout the year, a catalog called Bokatidindi is distributed in the month of November to every single mail box that contains hundreds of books published in September and October. Icelandics then order books for... well, everyone... in the name of the most amazing tradition you have never heard of - Jolabokaflod, or the "Yule Book Flood."
Giving books as gifts for the holiday in Iceland is a brilliant tradition that got its start in hard times. When the country became independent in 1944 during World War II, there were importation embargos on most goods... putting would-be gifts in scarce supply. However, the restrictions on paper were far less severe. Though already popular, hardcovers became a lifeline to a sense of normalcy. (Even still today, Iceland has only recently begun seeing an increase in paperbacks as translations of titles from other countries are becoming easier to acquire. eBooks are still not a popular option!)
The festivities of Jolabokaflod are simple enough - Books are given or exchanged on December 24th, then the night is spent reading your new stories and eating chocolates or drinking hot cocoa. My girlfriend and I have made it part of our tradition to exchange chocolates sourced from local chocolatiers on our travels, and I skip the packaged mixes in favour of whipping up a decadent homemade hot cocoa with steamed milk, brown sugar, and a high percentage dark cocoa powder.
Jolabokaflod and variations of it are becoming known around the world as a way to promote literacy and share a love of books. While in Iceland the books given are usually the new titles recently released, as dedicated used book lovers we have taken to sharing some of our favourite reads from the year with each other. Whichever form your holiday celebrations take, I hope that books and chocolate can be part of what makes you happy!