The Christmas Book Flood (Jólabókaflóð)
Per capita, Iceland has the largest publishing industry in the world, with 3.5 books published per 1000. Reading books is obviously very important in Iceland, as is the act of gifting them. It all starts with the a catalogue listing all the publications that will be available during the festive period..
Indeed, the writing and subsequent publishing frenzy that takes place every year comes to a head right around the festive period when 80-90% of all books are published, and is the impetus for a great national conversation that ranges from the dinner table on Christmas day all the way to the national Radio and television stations and of course online.
What books did you like the look of? Which books are you thinking about buying for your mother, father and father-in-law? The conversation continues after Christmas, which books do you like the most/like the least?
Books are a very important Christmas gift in iceland, and the bókatíðindi is extensively combed for gift choices and extensively discussed. When all is said and done, when all the food is eaten and all the dishes cleared, a Christmas in Iceland is a Christmas spent reading. It is a cherished national tradition.
But why? Explanations abound: Iceland has for hundreds of years had a strong storytelling culture, evident from the Sagas and Eddas, which are some of the finest examples of medieval literature found anywhere.
It is also possible that the Icelandic story-telling tradition evolved out of evening gatherings held in the long, dark, cold winter months known as kvöldvaka (translates to “evening party”, but was a time when families would huddle up and work in close quarters) where there was story-telling in the communal living area, entertaining people as they did their “winter work” such as knitting and was also where the education of children took place.
Another reason is altogether more pragmatic, historical and indeed economic: during the time of the second world war, Iceland did not have the foreign currency to purchase many foreign goods as well as heavy taxes on imports; this placed more emphasis on local or national products, books being one of them.
Whatever the reasons, the Christmas Book Flood is alive and well today, and amounts to a celebration of nationwide literacy. Why not give out some books to your loved ones and relatives this year, and curl up in bed with a good page-turner? Long may Jólabókaflóð live on!