The Christmas Book Flood: A Beloved Icelandic Tradition

The Christmas Book Flood: A Beloved Icelandic Tradition

Words by Elliott Brandsma. Photo by Roman Gerasymenko

Christmastime is just around the corner, which means that, soon, Icelandic publishing houses will be releasing hundreds of new titles onto the Icelandic book market, commencing a unique tradition known as the jólabókaflóð, or the Christmas Book Flood. Throughout this bustling and much-anticipated yearly event, bookstores across Iceland resemble miniature concert venues, where Icelandic authors of all genres read from and promote their latest work, transforming the holiday season into an extended city-wide literary festival.

This charming tradition has recently started capturing international attention, especially through facebook; a series of widely-shared memes on the social networking site advertises and explains how Icelanders traditionally exchange books on Christmas Eve and then spend the remainder of the evening reading at home. A cherished staple of Icelandic holiday festivities, the Christmas Book Flood truly is a distinctive celebration of literacy that has a fascinating, yet little-known history.

Born Out of Scarcity

During World War II, restrictions on imports to Iceland were harsh. Moreover, Icelanders did not have the proper currency to purchase foreign products, which severely limited their gift-giving options around Christmastime.

However, these limitations did not apply to the local book market, so the tradition of exchanging books during the holidays naturally arose as a result. With a tiny population of just over 330,000, Iceland’s publishing industry has, until very recently, lacked the resources to publish and distribute new books all year round, making the Book Flood a practical marketing strategy as well as a treasured tradition.

Now Iceland represents one of the most prolific book-publishing countries in the world, as hundreds of bookstores and literary circles have been established all over the country. Many Icelanders will publish a piece of writing in one form or another during their lifetime (a book, a newspaper article, a poetry collection, etc.), and the island inhabitants also read more books per capita than any other people in the world. Not surprisingly, the book-loving island nation enjoys a sky-high literacy rate, demonstrating the value of integrating literature and reading into a nation’s cultural identity.

(One of the popular jólabókaflóð memes on facebook)

An Excessive Tradition?

Releasing hundreds of titles annually in a microcosmic country like Iceland inevitably leads to a backlog of books and occasionally Iceland’s largest publishing houses have had to flush out or destroy their excess inventory, leading some to question whether Iceland’s Book Flood tradition is more wasteful than wise. To eliminate this surplus, Icelandic publishers are starting to develop a more prominent and efficient year-round paperback book market in hopes that it will equalize supply and demand.

However, Iceland’s Christmas Book Flood will likely persist for decades to come as its popularity grows and it becomes more inextricably linked to the nation’s international identity. And both Icelanders and book lovers from all across the globe are probably content with that.

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