Jólabókaflóð: The Icelandic Literary Tradition To Indulge In This Winter
’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… because they were all so engrossed in their books. This is what Christmas Eve looks like in Iceland: cosy; bookish. It’s all thanks to the charming tradition of Jólabókaflóð, where friends and family give each other books as gifts and read them on 24 December.
It is hardly surprising, given the innate literary spirit of this nation, where it is said there are more books published and read per person than anywhere else in the world, and where it is estimated 1 in 10 people will publish a tome themselves. Much of the culture was born from the oral tradition of storytelling, and Icelanders are immensely proud of what is commonly regarded as their foundational text: the Icelandic Sagas, first written down in the 13th and 14th centuries.
“We have been enjoying stories on long winter nights since the settlement of Iceland more than 1,100 years ago and we are still doing that today,” Sigþrúður Gunnarsdóttir, from Iceland’s largest publishing house, Forlagið, tells me. “As a publisher, in a way my whole job pivots around the Jólabókaflóð.”
A huge proportion of books published in Iceland, including the majority of hardcovers, are released in October and November each year. The book flood tradition is so ubiquitous that the publishing industry used to deliver a catalogue of books published during the period to every house in the country. The Bókatíðindi as it is known, is now available to read online or to pick up at book shops and supermarkets. “What I love most about it is that, for three months or so, people are talking about new books everywhere you go, at workplaces, in parties or at the hairdressers,” Gunnarsdóttir adds. “In the middle of the Jólabókaflóð, one really feels that Iceland is a literary nation.”
That is music to the ears of any bookseller, and especially one of the UK’s most highly regarded, Chrissy Ryan, who founded London’s cult BookBar – a bookshop, bar and events space in North London that has forging a literary community as its MO. “I wish we had our own version!” she tells me. “The beautiful thing about it is not just that it’s a country prioritising literature and reading but showing the joy of reading. Gifts are supposed to be things you want and treasure, and so this tradition reinforces how entertaining books are. They are something to enjoy, rather than something you feel you should do.”
“A lot of people wish for a certain title as a Christmas present so that they can go to bed on Christmas Eve with a brand-new book,” adds Gunnarsdóttir. “Some people don’t turn the light off until they have read the last page. There are so many books that I would like to cuddle up with on Christmas Eve that I’m not sure my bed is big enough!”
5 Books That Make Perfect Jólabókaflóð Reads
- A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles – Contained and captivating; a brilliant under-the-covers read.
- And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – It doesn’t get better than a cosy murder mystery, courtesy of the undisputed queen of the genre.
- The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton – Everything about this masterfully crafted novel screams compelling wintery yarn.
- The Snowman by Jo Nesbo – Set in a remote mountain village in Norway, this is regarded as the apex of Nordic crime thrillers.
- Njál’s Saga – Why not go back to the source and engross yourself in this Icelandic saga (said to be the best of the bunch) – a riotous tale of spooky omens and family blood feuds describing events from the 10th and 11th centuries.
Marie-Claire Chappet is a London-based arts and culture journalist and contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar