… An Icelandic Christmas Tradition
The front cover of 2016’s Bókatíðindi
I know I speak for a lot of people at the Scottish Writers’ Centre when I say that, as a perennial book lover, I’ll definitely be giving and receiving books this Christmas. What better way to herald the start of a new year and celebrate the end of an old one than with a pile of captivating new reads? It’s a time-honoured tradition of book lovers all over the world, but nowhere does it better than Iceland.
Every Christmas Eve, thousands of Icelanders give each other books to be enjoyed over the Christmas period. Each purchase is a carefully considered decision: the result of meticulous perusing of the Bókatíðindi – an annual free book catalogue full of new publications – delivered to most Icelandic households. This rush to buy books precipitates what is known as the Christmas book flood – or “Jólabókaflóðið” – which begins in September each year, and ultimately forms what Kristjan B. Jonasson, president of the Iceland Publishers’ Association, describes as ‘the backbone of the publishing sector here in Iceland’. Oddly enough, this means that the vast majority of books are published during the “book flood” itself, with the exception of some best-selling translations (Harry Potter included).
Even better than this wonderful tradition of giving and receiving books is the fact that most Icelanders then spend Christmas Eve reading the books they’ve been given, ensuring that no present ends up forgotten and abandoned. Gifted books are physical, too: never an e-book. Because why honour such a special tradition by giving a characterless digital copy when an intricately designed hardback or re-designed classic spreads the love of books so much more?
But Iceland’s all-encompassing love of books is well documented. A tiny country, with a population roughly half the size of Glasgow, Iceland nonetheless has astonishing publishing rates. For every ten Icelanders, at least one will publish a book; combine this with the fact that, per head, there are more books read there than anywhere else in the world and Iceland rapidly emerges as the book-lover’s paradise. 1.2 million books were loaned from Reykjavik City Library in 2009, a frankly wonderful statistic considering its bite size population of a mere 200,000.
The tradition of “Jólabókaflóðið” has its roots in rationing imposed by the Second World War. As restrictions on imported paper were less stringent than on other imported giftware, books became the Christmas present of choice. Although a tradition born out of sheer practicality, it’s one that enchants book-lovers across the world, and forms a pivotal part of Iceland’s cultural heritage. Because who doesn’t love to spend a winter evening tucked up with a book?
Words by Rachel Walker.