On the second day of Christmas, the SWC gave to me…

By 04/12/2016December 11th, 20182 Comments

… An Icelandic Christmas Tradition

captureThe 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.


  • As a complementary seasonal offering, here’s my translation of the Icelandic Christmas classic ‘Jólakötturinn’ by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (1899-1972):

    The Yule Cat

    You’ve heard about the Yule Cat —
    He really was immense ;
    Nobody knew where he came from,
    Nobody knew where he went.

    He’d flash his eyes wide open
    And both were glowing bright ;
    It was not for the faint-hearted
    To face that awful sight.

    His whiskers sharp as meat-hooks,
    His back was arched up high,
    And the claws upon his shaggy paws
    Were dreadful to espy.

    He’d shake his mighty tail,
    He’d leap, he’d scratch and puff,
    Sometimes down in the valley,
    Sometimes up on the bluff.

    Hungry, wild and grim he roamed
    Through bitter winter snow,
    Gave everyone the shivers
    Wherever he might go.

    If you heard a dismal yowl outside
    Your luck had just run out ;
    It was men not mice he hunted —
    Of that there was no doubt.

    He preyed upon the poor folk
    Who got no gifts for Yule,
    Who struggled to keep going,
    Whose life was hard and cruel.

    He took all of their Yuletide food
    From the table and the shelf,
    He left them not a morsel,
    He ate it all himself.

    And so the women laboured
    With spindle, reel and rock,
    To make a little coloured patch
    Or just a single sock.

    Because he couldn’t come inside
    To catch the little ones,
    If you had given clothes
    To your daughters and your sons.

    And when the candles were kindled,
    When Yule Night was come,
    The children clutched their presents
    As the cat outside looked on.

    Some might get an apron,
    Some shoes or other stuff,
    As long as they’d got something,
    That would be enough.

    Because Kitty couldn’t eat them
    If they had new clothes to put on ;
    He’d hiss and howl horribly,
    And then he would be gone.

    Whether he’s about still
    I really couldn’t tell,
    But if everyone gets gifts for Yule,
    Then all may yet be well.

    Perhaps you will remember
    To help with gifts yourself ;
    Perhaps there still are children
    Who would get nothing else.

    Maybe if you can help those
    Who need a little cheer,
    It will bring you a Good Yule
    And a Happy New Year!

    Translated by Thor Ewing from the poem ‘Jólakötturinn’ by Jóhannes úr Kötlum (1899-1972)
    Translation Copyright © Thor Ewing 2015

Leave a Reply

SCOTTISH WRITERS' CENTRE | Ionad Sgrìobhadairean na h-Alba | Scottish Scrievers' Centre