Every year, my mom gives me a book for Christmas. She gets me other things, too, because my mom and I share a tendency to over-gift, but the book was a constant. As a child, we were often allowed to open these packages on Christmas Eve. We only got one gift early, and it was always, always a book.
I thought this tradition was unique to my family. Turns out, it’s a common practice in Iceland. Books are such a standard present in that cold country that it spurs a surge in publishing in the months leading up to the holiday. This wonderfully literary ritual even has a name: Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas Book Flood.”
According to this NPR article, Iceland is an extremely literary country. Not only does every Icelander aspire to write a book (hey, me too!) but the average citizen buys more books than the typical American. “If you look at book sales distribution in the U.K. and the States, most book sales actually come from a minority of people. Very few people buy lots of books. Everybody else buys one book a year if you’re lucky,” says Baldur Bjarnason, a researcher who has been following the Icelandic publishing market. “It’s much more widespread in Iceland. Most people buy several books a year.”
Several books a year? Okay, that doesn’t sound like that many, especially to a book-horder like me. But it is a fairly big difference. Literary culture, on the whole, is much more significant in Iceland than in America. Perhaps this explains why so many Icelanders believe in elves (aka the Huldufólk, or “hidden people”). Maybe people who read more fairytales are more likely to believe in them. Or perhaps just reading in general opens your mind to the weird and wonderful possibilities of the world—magic not excluded.
“I loved reading and I wanted you kids to love books,” said my Christmas-crazy mom when I asked her whether she knew about this Scandinavian ritual. “A lot of people have the tradition of singing carols, which is what I did as a kid. Reading books to you kids was something we could do all together.” We’ve never been a musical family (I’m particularly tone deaf, though my brothers aren’t exactly talented in that department either) so reading it was.
There are a lot of holiday rituals I don’t observe. I’m not religious, nor do I imagine that will change (I don’t believe in elves, either, though I sort of wish I did). But a tradition that revolves around giving—and getting—brand new reading material? That’s my kind of Christmas.
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