Jólabókaflóð: the Christmas flood of books
A country of bookworms, Iceland prints more books per capita than any other country in the world, with over 50% of Icelanders reading more than eight books per year. It’s no surprise, then, that one of Iceland’s best-loved Christmas traditions revolves around reading. Jólabókaflóð – most closely translated as ‘Christmas flood of books’ – is a literary Christmas celebration that begins with the printing of a catalogue in mid-November and ends with the giving, receiving, and reading of new books on Christmas Eve.
During World War 2, when giftable items were scarce and expensive at Christmas time, paper was one of the few non-rationed luxuries. This meant that not only was printing books both affordable and accessible, but books were one of the few gifts that families could exchange during the festive period.
When the war ended and other luxuries became available once again, the tradition that had become so well-loved continued on, and remains a staple on the Icelandic Christmas calendar. The annual Jólabókaflóð celebrations begin with the publishing and distribution of the Bókatíðindi, a catalogue of new publications from Iceland’s Publisher’s Association that is distributed for free in autumn to every home in Iceland. Icelanders then choose books for their family and friends, exchange their chosen titles on Christmas Eve and spend the rest of the evening reading them.
Iceland is known for its folklore, mythology and Nordic Noir tales, and some of Iceland’s most famous stories feature a few of Icelandair’s favourite holiday destinations. So, grab a cup of hot chocolate, or jólabland (a fizzy mix of orange soda and malt) if you want to fully indulge in the tradition, and get cosy as we take you on a magical tour of some of Icelandair’s favourite stories this Christmas season.
The best place to begin our trip through Iceland’s literary history is, undeniably, at the country’s greatest and most revered tales: the Icelandic Sagas.
The sagas are a unique body of medieval literature that rank amongst the world’s greatest literary treasures. They cover events dating back to 1000 AD – tales that were written down circa 1190-1320 by a series of authors whose identity can only be guessed at.
The Icelandic word ‘saga’ translates most closely to ‘something said’ or ‘a narrative’, and the stories of the Icelandic Sagas first appeared as oral tales passed down between generations. They were then captured on manuscripts in the 12th and 13th centuries and became the epic pieces of literature that we know and love today.
Though Icelandic trolls and ghosts feature, fantastical creatures are not the focal point of these stories. Instead, they tell of the lives and challenges of kings, explorers, lovers, families, bishops and saints, painting a picture of the history of Icelandic life as we know it.
If you want to incorporate the sagas into your trip to Iceland, take a stop on the way to Snæfellsnes and visit the famous Settlement Center in Borgarnes on the western side of the country.
The first and only Icelandic native to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Halldór Laxness was known for his poetry, journalism, plays and, most importantly, fiction.
If you want to get truly stuck into Laxness’ work but don’t know where to begin, many recommend his three novels published in the 1930s: Salka Valka (parts I and II) and Independent People, plus The Fish Can Sing from the 1950s. With characters that pull you into the very fabric of rural Icelandic life and wide-ranging themes that closely examine the intricacies of human existence, Halldór Laxness’ works are Icelandic literature at its finest.
After his death, Laxness’ home at Gljúfrasteinn was turned into a museum, with his furniture and art still intact. It’s situated about a 20-minute drive from Reykjavík and is a convenient stop on your Golden Circle tour.
Nordic Noir is a popular genre not just in Iceland, but the world over, and few authors capture the anticipation of their readers like Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Her gritty and hard-hitting crime novels are split into two series – the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series and the Children’s House series.
The first follows the central character of attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir and her quests to solve some of the country’s most mysterious murders. The second follows detective Huldar and child psychologist Freyja, and their attempts to tackle a complicated caseload that unfurls around traumatised young people and their lives.
The stories take place across Iceland, weaving together themes and locations distinctive to the country. Against a backdrop of both city and countryside, the real world and online, the ‘queen of Icelandic crime’ takes readers on a journey through the iciest depths of Iceland’s dark side.
If you love Nordic Noir, why not also check out other acclaimed authors Arnaldur Indriðason and Ragnar Jónasson for some equally dark and suspenseful stories. Check out our interview with Ragnar, and learn more about the Iceland Noir literary festival he co-founded.
The books written by Alda Sigmundsdóttir lovingly capture varying elements of Icelandic culture and society – from contemporary issues to mythology and ancient beliefs. Two books, The Little Book of the Icelanders at Christmas and The Little Book of Days in Iceland, are about Icelanders’ enthusiasm for the Yuletide season, and Iceland’s special seasonal events and holidays.
She’s also written about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the Icelandic language, tips and tricks for tourists visiting the country, and Icelandic folk tales. Her books are fun and easily digestible and are the perfect way to learn more about the people of Iceland.
So whether you’re looking to bring the gift of reading into the lives of your loved ones this Christmas, or you want to expand your own literary horizons, welcome the magic of Jólabókaflóð into your home this winter. Gleðileg bókajól, merry ‘bookchristmas’!