New Traditions

Why Iceland's Jolabokaflod Is The Perfect Christmas Eve Tradition

Books and snuggles? Yes, please.

by Tess Gionet
Originally Published: 
A mother and daughter reading a fairy tale next to a Christmas tree
Anastasiia Krivenok/Moment/Getty Images

Cookies set out for Santa. Your favorite Christmas movie and hot chocolate. Caroling around the neighborhood. Christmas light sightseeing. Matching pajama sets. When it comes to Christmas Eve, there are so many great ways to celebrate. Figuring out what meaningful traditions to pass on is perhaps the most rewarding and fun part of the holidays. But there might be a tradition you’re missing that could quickly become your family’s favorite. Jolabokaflod, anyone?

What Is Jolabokaflod?

Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood” in English, is the Icelandic tradition of giving and unwrapping new books on Christmas Eve, cozying up with family, and reading into the night. It sounds simple, and might not dazzle your child the way your neighbor’s rooftop light show does, but it’s an excellent way to turn all that pre-Christmas excited into a calm, quiet read-a-thon.

Jolabokaflod has a rich history in Iceland, dating back to World War II when paper was one of the only commodities not rationed. Books were shared at Christmas with abundance and extra love, as other gifts were in short supply. Today, the tradition still stands: In late September, a free catalog of Iceland’s newest books called the Bokatidindi hits every home’s mailbox, and Icelanders hit the bookstores. This “book flood” is responsible for most of Iceland’s book purchases for the entire year. The books with the most fanfare are saved to be published during this season in hopes of ending up under the tree or in a stocking.

Iceland is a nation of book lovers. A recent study from 2019 shows that on average they read 2.3 books per month (most Americans read four books that year, and a quarter of Americans have sadly not read a single book in the past four years). Plus, one in ten Icelanders will go on to publish a book of their own one day. Could this be because of Jolabokaflod? It’s hard to know, but it makes sense that a nation with a rich tradition devoted to all things books will engrain a love of reading into their people.

The Virtues Of Jolabokaflod

Books challenge kids to ask questions, to form connections, to widen their perspectives, to grow their consciousness, and to raise their self-esteem. Reading together strengthens emotional bonds between parents and kids, and gives us a common language to talk through big feelings. Plus, reading is a calm activity — it lowers stress, and it’s much less cleanup than a batch of cookies. While we don’t have a Bokatidindi for you, these modern fairy tales would make a sweet choice, or maybe one of these classics, perfect for reading out loud. Or make it even simpler and do a distanced book swap with your parent friends.

Whatever book you pick out for your Jolabokaflod, know that you are sending a powerful message: this is a special gift, because reading is important. You might just find that it’s the holiday tradition your family looks forward to most, year after year.

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