Jólabókaflóð: The Icelandic Holiday tradition That You’ll Want in Your Life

Beowulf from “A book of myths” (1915)

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

Jólabókaflóð, or if you prefer your text free of diacritical marks and disused letters, Jolabokaflod, is a tradition that could only come out of Iceland. Literally it translates to Yule Book Flood.  Icelanders read an average of eight books a year, while Americans end up at about four. They also publish about one title for every two hundred people and there is an average of 775 titles released every Christmas season.  This onslaught of reading material is the flood but it’s only part of the tradition.

The actual beginning of this Christmas ritual doesn’t go back very far, though the Icelandic love of books goes back over a thousand years.  Icelanders have always been lovers of stories and tales, especially on the long winter’s long nights. The Skalds, wandering or court poem singers, were held in some renown and acted as the author/rock stars of their day. It was not uncommon for a Skald to be taken with the plunder of war. They filled the great halls of Viking leaders with songs and tales as, sometimes, nightly entertainment from Russia to Greenland. The famous Eddas (two Medieval Icelandic literary works) also carried poetic myths down through the ages and were memorized and recited by scholar after scholar until recorded by a man named Snorri Sturluson[1] to both preserve and enhance their accessibility. Finally the sagas journeyed from land to land taking tales of Thor and Loki (not just Marvel characters) and Beowulf and even Leif Erikson to the people of Scandinavia.

The modern half of the tradition owes its genesis to the independence of Iceland from Denmark in 1944. Because of the Second World War, many things were rationed. This made giving presents at Christmas hard, unless of course, you took advantage of the long standing love of tales and gave books for Christmas. You see, one thing that was not rationed was paper. The Icelandic people and their publishing houses loved the idea. Beginning in the Forties and running down through today, people have been waiting impatiently for their copy of the Bókatíðindi, the magazine/catalog that comes every fall. This magazine is put together by all the publishing houses in cooperation to showcase all the new titles for that year. This is the Sears and Roebuck Christmas book of Iceland. The difference is that the publishers print, package and ship these catalogs to every household in the Nation…for free. The revenue generated more than outweighs the expense. All of the media, print broadcast and online, have book reviews and publication announcements. It is the event of the year.

So what exactly makes this a Christmas tradition? Everybody gives books at Christmas. Everyone. All of Iceland has their Christmas Eve meal, exchanges gifts and then sits around as a family and reads their new books for the remainder of the day while eating konfect, filled chocolates, and sipping hot chocolate or jólabland, a sweet nonalcoholic malt beverage that is a Christmas favorite. The parties that occur after Christmas will have a lot of book discussions. Newspapers will be covering the best and worst of the books, from writing and plots to covers and titles.

We could all benefit from this, but I certainly don’t endorse replacing all your holiday gifts with books. The great thing about borrowed traditions is that you can adapt them to fit your life. I first ran across this tradition on Christmas Eve two years ago. This was a little short notice for 2015 so I decided that I would try it with my family in 2016. Last year we all drew lots in November and picked a book for the person we drew and everybody go to open their book on Christmas Eve. We then spent the remainder of the evening quietly reading. It was a great way to quiet down kiddos, hyped up on Christmas cookies and the pending visit from Santa. It also solved the “Can’t we have just one present tonight?” problem that parents have faced for years. It’s also a great way to foster a love of reading in your whole family.

We are a nation made of other nations and their traditions. We have German Christmas trees, English carols and eggnog, Spanish luminarias and Irish mistletoe. We are not afraid to adapt great traditions from our ancestors, or even our neighbor’s ancestors. Jólabókaflóð is making its way into American holiday plans. You can find everything from recipes to try and hints at adapting the book flood to fit your holidays to Icelandic chocolates and Jólabókaflóð pyjamas.  So maybe this year while you’re out doing the dreaded holiday shopping, pick up some books for your family and friends and borrow a tradition from our Icelandic friends and have a nice reading time on Christmas Eve.


Sources:

[1] Nancy Marie Brown and many other scholars believe that much of the inspiration for modern favorites The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and their literary descendants come from the tales of the Vikings.
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About WCPLtn

The Williamson County Public Library System seeks to meet the recreational, educational, and information needs of county patrons through: a significant collection of digital and print materials housed at a network of countywide locations headquartered in Franklin; extensive personal computer and related technology; and diverse and interesting programs targeted to various age groups.

Posted on December 8, 2017, in History, Holidays and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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