It may surprise you, but Iceland is one of the most literarily engaged countries—in fact, 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetimes! With a culture that’s so deeply rooted in the love for literature, Iceland has dedicated a yearly holiday tradition, Jólabókaflóð, to a countrywide gifting and appreciation of books.
Loosely translated as ‘the book flood of Christmas’, for Icelandic readers it’s a chance to bask in the unique world that books create for every single reader, and to share that wonder with beloved friends and family members.
Recently, we spoke to Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, one of Iceland’s most prolific, varied authors, about this lovely literary celebration. As a wildly imaginative writer of everything from crime thrillers (like the Glass Key nominee and Icelandic Crime Fiction Award-winning I Remember You: A Ghost Story) to children’s books, and an equally enthusiastic reader, Yrsa offered wondrous and candid insights on Jólabókaflóð, the traditions spun around it, and what Americans might take away from this cherished and heartfelt holiday.
READ IT FORWARD: Yrsa, thank you so much for speaking with us! We’ve heard that Jólabókaflóð is best translated as “the Yule book flood,” and that it’s when Icelandic readers celebrate the rush of newly published books before the holiday season. Is it true that every December in Iceland, publishing houses release a flood of new books into the market, and every household receives a complimentary catalog detailing and delving into all of the new offerings?
YRSA SIGURÐARDÓTTIR: The catalog, Bókatíðindi, is sent to every household and completely devoured by the public upon its arrival. I think it’s fair to say that probably all hardcover novels by Icelandic authors are published in October and November so that they’ll be a part of the Christmas book flood.
During this “flood,” a large portion of the annual sales for hardcover novels takes place. The rest of the year, people often buy small paperback books or use the libraries to catch up on what they missed during the Christmas season. Other formats haven’t caught on in a big way, so eBooks and audiobooks aren’t a big part of our book market.
RIF: Have Icelanders been giving each other books at the holidays since the Second World War when foreign imports were expensive and scarce?
YS: I’m not sure when this happened, but that sounds very likely. Even before World War II, foreign imports were a luxury and more expensive, so I’m sure books were big before that. I’m basing that on the fact that literature and reading have always been held in very high regard here.
RIF: Is the book still the most popular Christmas present in Iceland?
YS: Absolutely, books remain the number one Christmas present here. In fact, it’s considered a total flop Christmas if you do not get a book! Even the news programs in December report on which books are doing well and which ones top the charts.
We open our presents on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day morning like in many other countries. So, most people end the evening by settling down on a sofa with one of the gifted books they got and reading. It’s really relaxing and charming, especially if it’s snowing and cold outside. And in the days that follow, people chat about what books they got and how much they’re enjoying the read.
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RIF: Have you and your family given books to one another at Christmas? And as such a devoted author and reader, what do you think is so wonderful about giving one another a book at the holidays?
YS: I always give my parents a book each, and my children give me and their father a book as well. I’m afraid that they in return expect something a bit more elaborate, but they do get books from our pets (chosen by me, secretly!).
I think giving a book as a present is more thoughtful than many other things because you really need to put a lot of consideration into the selection. It’s not only a feel-good present to get, but also to give since you know you’re contributing to the receiver’s intellect and broader perspective. So it’s win-win all the way!
RIF: And finally, are the books wrapped in any particular way for Jólabókaflóð?
YS: Oh, it’s good that you asked! The books make such wonderful presents because of their shape. They’re so easy to pack, so this very much works in their favor! For Jólabókaflóð, they’re wrapped in Christmas paper and decorated with bows and curled ribbon in the normal holiday fashion.
Featured Image: Elsa Jenna; Author Photo: Sigurjon Ragnar