Iceland might be the best place in the world to be a book lover. 93% of Icelanders read at least one book a year compared to 73% of Americans, so it comes as no surprise that Iceland ranks as the third most literate country in the world (Finland and Norway take the top two spots, according to this study). In Iceland, one in ten people will publish a book in their lifetime, and in 2011 Reykjavík was designated a UNESCO City of Literature.
Here in the United States, the beginning of the holiday season is signaled by the unceremonious swapping of Halloween candy for holiday decorations in grocery store aisles around the country on November 1st. Only by the grace of God will you not hear Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” before Thanksgiving. In Iceland, however, the holiday season officially kicks off with the delivery of the Bokatidindi—a catalogue of every new book published in Iceland. Let that sink in: The Iceland Publishers Association distributes a free catalogue of books to every Icelandic home. And people go nuts.
The Icelandic tradition of jólabókaflóð, or “Yule Book Flood,” originated during World War II when foreign imports were restricted, but paper was cheap. Iceland’s population was not large enough to support a year-round publishing industry, so book publishers flooded the market with new titles in the final weeks of the year. While giving books is not unique to Iceland, the tradition of exchanging books on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading, is becoming a cultural phenomenon. In recent years the meme has spread on social media, and bookworms around the world are cottoning on to the idea. (Here’s how to pronounce it.)
Last Christmas, my family gathered to celebrate the holidays in Portland, Oregon. It was a big crowd. My stepsister and her wife got married the week before Christmas, so the extended family of parents and siblings and partners and steps and in-laws and children extended even further than usual. I tallied the people on my gift list and made an executive decision to do something different that year. Rather than rack my brain and sack my savings, I opened my Goodreads app and headed to the bookstore. I was going to start a one-woman revolution in Christmas gifting.
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The concept was simple: one part Jolabokaflod, one part Blind Date with a Book, and a twist of White Elephant. There were 10 adults on my list, so I would buy 10 of the best books I had read the previous year. Only books I had rated with five stars were eligible, and they had to carry some appeal for more than one person on the list. Thankfully I had the vast used book inventory of Powell’s at my disposal, so I set myself a limit of $10 per book and started hunting.
While I browsed, I composed short blurbs in my head for each title. Then, just like one would do with a Blind Date with a Book, I wrapped the books and wrote a few words on a tag to give a sense of the genre and style. For Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, I referenced Murakami and Buddhism. For Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, it was “a beautiful post-apocalyptic page-turner.” Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life was “a meditation on love and loss.” And so on.
After dinner on Christmas Eve, my family gathered in front of the fire in my sister’s living room. The babies had been put to bed. My five-year-old son and six-year-old nephew cuddled on the couch with my dad, who read aloud from a tattered copy of The Night Before Christmas, a tradition in our family since he was a child. When “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” closed out storytime, the Jolabokaflod gates opened. I handed out gift-wrapped books to all of the adults (the boys got their own children’s books to open). We passed each wrapped book around the room so that everyone could read the tags, then placed them on the coffee table.
I gave instructions: Everyone choose a book that you are drawn to, and open it. If you have already read it then you can trade with anyone else in the room who holds a book that you’d rather read. I beamed as I watched my family open books that I had loved reading. Shockingly, no one had chosen a book that they had already read, so the White Elephant clause wasn’t invoked. We talked about books as the embers died down, and then everyone went to bed with a new book in hand.
This year, we’re changing the rules a bit. Everyone will bring their own blind date book to the party. I won’t be the sole Santa in the room, and I’ll learn something new about the people I know best: I’ll get to discover what they loved reading most this past year.
What a gift.