December abounds with holidays and reasons to celebrate. There's St. Nicholas Day, the Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Lucia Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, Boxing Day, Kwanzaa, Omisoka, Yule, and Saturnalia to name a few.
One holiday that is only now starting to be heard from outside its home is Icelandic Jólabókaflóðið.
Iceland publishes the most books per person globally. The Reykjavik City Library loans more than 1.2 million books per year to their 200,000 population -- that's six books per person. There's a popular TV show, Kiljan, devoted entirely to books. Iceland always ranks among the top 3 countries in terms of being the most literate country in the world. UNESCO named Reykjavik the City of Literature in 2011.
Knowing this, it stands to reason that if any country were to develop a holiday centered on books and reading, it would be Iceland. Jólabókaflóðið literally translates to "book flood".
How It Began
It began during World War II when foreign imports were restricted, but the paper was cheap. Iceland’s population could not support a year-round publishing industry, so book publishers flooded the market with new titles in the final weeks of the year.
The "Book Flood" begins with the release of Bókatíðindi, a catalog of new publications from the Iceland Publishers Association. It has distributed free to every Icelandic home since 1994. My heart races at the thought of such a catalog. Much more enjoyable than scrolling through recommendations on Amazon or in a brick-and-mortar store -- if you can find one. Icelandic researcher Baldur Bjarnason summed it up perfectly for NPR: "It’s like the firing of the guns at the opening of the race".
Iceland is not the only country where books are considered gifts and often exchanged during the hectic month of December. It is, however, the only country where books are opened on Christmas Eve and everyone spends the evening reading, sipping a favorite beverage, and eating chocolate.
"The culture of giving books as presents is very deeply rooted in how families perceive Christmas as a holiday," says Kristjan B. Jonasson, president of the Iceland Publishers Association. "Normally, we give the presents on the night of the 24th and people spend the night reading. In many ways, it's the backbone of the publishing sector here in Iceland."
If we were to adopt this practice, how would you decide which book to buy for whom? Do you give people a book you've read that you think they would enjoy? Do you find a new book and send it to several friends so it can lead to discussions?
Read It Forward (http://www.readitforward.com/) recommends combining traditions by celebrating Jólabókaflóð with a bunch of Book Blind Dates: Buy a bunch of books, wrap and tag them with hints about their content, then let the others choose their book based on the teasers. They also discuss including a White Elephant clause to make sure everyone heads to bed with a new book they haven’t yet read.
Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, claims "Books remain the number one Christmas present here. In fact, it’s considered a total flop Christmas if you do not get a book! Even the news programs in December report on which books are doing well and which ones top the charts."
Moving to a Country Near You
In November 2016, the Jólabókaflóðið Book Campaign started a crowdfunding project, to publish a UK version of the Book Bulletin that captures book recommendations and personal/professional profiles for sharing with people seeking to buy Christmas gifts for their friends and families.
There was so much global interest in the Jólabókaflóðið Book Campaign at the London Book Fair in March 2017, that the Icelandic Publishers Association spent a year of visiting trade expos to spread the word about the Christmas book flood tradition. Perhaps their presence at BookExpo America is why several book websites are offering book recommendations from their authors this season.
There is a very active Jólabókaflóðið Book Campaign account on Pinterest that captures the spirit of how the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóðið is evolving into a global phenomenon.
This will become my holiday since it affords a self-proclaimed book addict to indulge in two of my favorite pastimes – reading to the exclusion of everything else and eating chocolate.
What will you be reading on December 24th?