At Bas Bleu, we think books make the best gifts, be they for birthdays, graduations, Christmas, or just because. So when we first learned about Jólabókaflóð, Iceland’s annual Christmas “book flood,” we were delighted…and envious! A nationwide tradition of giving books as gifts to family and friends on December 24? After which everyone spends Christmas Eve sitting around reading? Is it too late to book our flights to Reykjavik?
Jólabókaflóð has its roots in World War II, when wartime restrictions on imported goods severely limited Icelanders’ gift options for the Christmas season. Import restrictions and taxes were much lower on paper than most other items, making books an affordable holiday gift. As many of the restrictive laws stayed in place after the war, the book-giving habit stuck, becoming so popular that today the majority of books sold in Iceland are sold between September and December, in preparation for the giving season.
Where does the flood come in? Well, demand usually fuels supply; in Iceland, the majority of new books published every year are published in preparation for the holiday season. In fact, Icelanders have their very own book catalog: Bokatidindi. Published annually by the Iceland Publishers Association and mailed for free to every household in the country, Bokatidindi contains all of the new books published in Iceland for that year. According to researcher Baldur Bjarnason, “It’s like the firing of the guns at the opening of the race. It’s not like this is a catalog that gets put in everybody’s mailbox and everybody ignores it. Books get attention here.”
For a nation with a population of just over 332,000 people, Iceland has what some might call an outsized literary appetite. (As if that was even possible!) 93% of Icelanders read more than one book a year, and 50% read more than eight books a year. By comparison, in 2015, only 72% of Americans had read a book…and they didn’t necessarily finish it. 10% of Icelanders will actually publish a book during their lifetime, and in 2009, book loans at Reykjavik City Library exceeded 1 million…in a city with 200,000 residents. In fact, Reykjavik is one of twenty-eight UNESCO Cities of Literature. The United States, with a population of more than 325 million, has only two: Iowa City, home to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Seattle, home to the Book Discounter Who Must Not Be Named.
“‘If you look at book sales distribution in the U.K. and the States, most book sales actually come from a minority of people. Very few people buy lots of books. Everybody else buys one book a year if you’re lucky,’ Bjarnason says. ‘It’s much more widespread in Iceland. Most people buy several books a year. ’” And Icelanders aren’t just reading a lot of books; they’re also talking about a lot of books. “‘Even now, when I go the hairdressers, ’ Kristin Vidarsdottir, manager of the Unesco City of Literature project, says, ‘they do not want celebrity gossip from me but recommendations for Christmas books.’”
Adds Bryndis Loftsdóttir, vice director of the Icelandic Publishing Association, “In 2014, each Icelander bought on average 2.1 books as Christmas presents, and received 1.2 books as a gift! The atmosphere around books during the high tide of publishing before Christmas is quite something.”
Here’s the good news, American bluestockings: You don’t need to move to Iceland to revel in your own “Christmas book flood.” Jólabókaflóð is a tradition that’s easily replicated in your own seasonal celebration, and Bas Bleu is here to help!
- Book catalog in the mailbox? Check! (Don’t yet receive the Bas Bleu catalog? We can fix that!)
- Beautiful, engrossing, amazing books for everyone on your Jólabókaflóð list? Check, check, and check…
Some Americans already practice this tradition, albeit perhaps without the hard-to-spell name. Last year, one of our readers shared with us the joy of using Christmas Eve book-giving to build her children’s personal libraries:
“This is a wonderful tradition. We’ve always done this on Christmas Eve. When they were little, I loved seeing my four boys sitting quietly looking at their new books. I still do. My oldest now has thirty Christmas books in his collection, in addition to thirty birthday books.”
As Christmas traditions go, Iceland’s Jólabókaflóð is our new favorite! We’ll definitely be incorporating it into our own families’ Christmas Eve celebrations. If you decide to try it out—or if you’ve been practicing your own version for years—share your stories in the comments below…or check in with us after Christmas!
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