Why Every Book Lover Should Steal Iceland’s Christmas Tradition

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good book!

book stackArt_man/Shutterstock

From hanging stockings to drinking eggnog, the month of December is full of fun traditions. (Here are the stories behind some of them!) But if you love reading, and your December calendar has room for one more tradition, this awesome Icelandic custom might be just what your Christmas needs.

The Icelandic name for this tradition is “Jolabokaflod,” or the “Christmas/Yule Book Flood.” (Sounds amazing already, right?!) Here’s how it works: Instead of the typical gift exchange on Christmas morning, families reserve Christmas Eve for the main event, and they exchange one thing in particular: books. Yep, on December 24, every member of the family opens a new book.

There are a couple of variations on the tradition. Some families hand-select a book for each member of the family, similar to the gift-giving we’re used to. Other families do more of a “book swap,” with each person choosing a book that they themselves like and want to recommend to their family. They lay the books out, and each family member chooses the one they’d most like to read. Either way, what they do next is the best part of the tradition—they curl up to a mug of hot chocolate and their new books and read until they fall asleep. Sounds like our kind of holiday cheer! Here are some more cozy Christmas traditions you’ll want to try out this year.

Though “Christmas Book Flood” does refer to the Christmas Eve gifting tradition, it also, more generally, refers to the months before Christmas. The months of September to November are the most popular time of the year, by far, for book sales in Iceland. According to Icelandic journalist Hildur Knútsdóttir, the beginning of November marks the official start of the Christmas season in Iceland. That’s when the Iceland Publishers Association delivers a book catalog, showing nearly every new title published that year in Iceland, to every household in the country. You read that right—every single one! Families then browse the catalog to pick out their gifts for that Christmas. Learn which European country has a town with more books than people.

The Book Flood tradition dates back to World War II, when Iceland was struggling financially. Many families were unable to splurge on holiday gifts. However, paper—and therefore books—remained pretty inexpensive. So books became the primary Christmas gift for most Icelandic families, and it’s been that way ever since.

Check out some other fun Christmas traditions from around the world.

[Sources: Tor.com, readitforward.com, mnn.com, NPR]

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.