Jólabókaflóðið

by Lorin Michel Sunday, December 20, 2015 10:04 PM

Last night, Kevin and I were volunteering for the Southern Arizona Golden Retriever Rescue group, wrapping presents at Barnes & Noble. It was my third time; I’m getting to be a pro. We were there from just before 4 to just after 6. The last gifts we wrapped were for a couple, the wife of which I had spoken to earlier when she walked by the table and asked: “Are you guys wrapping presents?” I replied that we were indeed. She could barely contain her joy.

Shortly thereafter a gentleman came to the table and asked that we wrap a book for his wife. As we wrapped, I asked if he wanted to pick out a to/from tag and he said: “No. It’s just the two of us.” As we were finishing his book, his wife came up to have us wrap her book, the same woman who had asked about wrapping. That’s when she told us the story of Jólabókaflóðið.

Iceland is one of the most prolific countries in the world when it comes to book publishing. Each year, between October and November, the majority of new titles are published in preparation for what it known as the flood of books. Jólabókaflóðið. 

This flood is what sustains the country’s publishing industry, which publishes approximately five titles for every 1000 residents. It is fueled by the Icelandic tradition of buying books to be given and read on Christmas Eve. Nearly all Icelanders receive at least one book for Christmas, and at the end of the evening, most retire to their beds to read. 

Iceland has a long literary history that dates back to medieval times. They have several books from that time period that are still published and read. Many are published in the native Icelandic language, one mostly spoken only by the 319,000 people who live there. One of the local city libraries regularly loans out 1.2 million books a year, and there’s a television show called Kiljan, devoted entirely to the wonder and joy of books. 

I loved this story. As I was wrapping her book, I asked if there was a particular genre of book that seemed to dominate and she said that it was usually fiction though biographies were popular, too. She showed me the app on her phone. Jólabókaflóðið has been happening since World War II, when there were strict money restrictions that limited what could be imported into Iceland. Paper wasn’t one of the items restricted so books became the Christmas present of choice. Icelanders inside and outside of the country have been honoring the tradition ever since. Every year, a Bokatidindi, or catalog, is published showing hundreds of thousands of new titles. It is distributed to every Icelander. 

The gifts are always hardcover books because books are such an important gift, that they must also be physical. They have to feel substantial. Paperbacks are rare and e-books are non-existent, at Christmas, because that doesn’t fit the tradition. 

I finished wrapping the woman’s gift. We put a lovely gold blow on it. Her husband had moved over the newsstand and was waiting for her to finish. They had come together and then split up in the store with the express purpose of buying each other one book to give on Christmas Eve. They will open them and then spend the rest of the night reading to themselves, reading to each other, enjoying the written word. 

She thanked me and wished me a Merry Christmas. Gleðileg jól. I smiled and wished her the same, and a Christmas Eve in particular filled with the wonder of the books they will gift each other. Filled with a celebration of stories. Sounds like my kind of Christmas.

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