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 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.
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 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.
- Songs of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown