Iceland’s Christmas book flood encourages everyone to indulge in an evening of reading
Twas the night before Christmas, and all across Iceland, every person was up reading, new books in their hands. The books had been picked with excitement and care, for the night of jólabókaflóð finally was there…
It’s fair to guess that this couplet doesn’t describe most people’s Christmas Eve, because with a population of only 319,000 people, most of us don’t live in Iceland. For residents of this small island nation, the tradition of jólabókaflóð (“yo-la-bok-a-flot”), or “Christmas Book Flood,” means that December 24th is a time to give books as gifts, then spend the rest of the evening reading. Unsurprisingly, Iceland boasts some of the highest literacy rates in the world, much of which is likely attributable to this annual exchange of reading material.
Rationing and reading
Even though most publishers don’t release books until November of each year, Iceland takes reading very seriously. 93 percent of Icelanders read at least one book every year, but 50 percent read at least eight. So even if less than a 1000 new Icelandic titles are published each year, they’re being read by a bigger portion of the population than in other countries. This probably helps encourage people to write more too, as on average, ten percent of the population will publish a book at least once in their lifetime.
Iceland’s love of literacy wasn’t completely organic though. Jólabókaflóð, in particular, can be traced back to events in World War II, when many materials were being heavily rationed after Iceland gained independence from Denmark. Paper, however, was relatively easy to obtain, making books the easiest and widespread gift option for the winter holidays. This was codified, also in 1944, by the Bókatíðindi, or “Book Bulletin.” Like a much more civilized version of Black Friday shopping, the Bókatíðindi is sent out to every citizen by the Icelandic publishing industry each November, kicking off holiday shopping for the whole country.
Reaching more readers
In a time when reading material is everywhere, jólabókaflóð is still going strong. Electronic books have seen slow growth in Iceland, largely because of the desire to gift substantial books as gifts. Most titles are still published in the winter only, although some, like translations of Harry Potter, have warranted publication dates in the spring or summer. And while speaking Icelandic helps with pronouncing a word like jólabókaflóð, people from other countries have been doing their best to adopt some form of Christmas book floods at home, adding new stories to their Christmas Eve traditions.
My four-year-old asked: That’s weird. Do kids still get toys too? It’s weird.
Yes, but probably nothing gigantic. Instead of a heap of presents under a Christmas tree, kids put their shoes in the window at night, and one of thirteen Santa’s will leave them some small gifts or fruit in the morning. Bad kids don’t get coal, but may end up with an uncooked potato.
Source: Literary Iceland Revels In Its Annual 'Christmas Book Flood' by Jordan G. Teicher, NPR