This Month’s Featured Article

JOLABOKAFLOD – An Icelandic Holiday Tradition Gone Global

By Published On: December 1st, 2023

For those who don’t know this about me, I hail from the small and isolated North Atlantic island of Iceland. Yes, yes, that country that’s been in the news since November due to the thousands of earthquakes and impending volcano (at the time of this writing there hasn’t been an eruption … yet). But Iceland is known for way more than seismic activity; we’re also well known for our bravery, gung-ho attitude, and Viking ways; gorgeous landscapes and (sometimes) harsh climate; being the home of Björk and some of the most beautiful women and strongest men in the world; and having had the first female president in the world … to name just a very select few facts. But in recent years we’ve also become known for an almost 80-year-old tradition.


Jólabókaflóð, which literally translates to ‘Christmas-book-flood,’ is a tradition that began in Iceland during World War II. You see, Iceland had been under Danish rule until 1944 when, while Denmark was under Nazi occupation, Iceland declared its independence. Paper was one of the very few commodities that was not rationed in Iceland during the war. This simply helped fuel Icelanders’ love of books because other types of presents were or in short supply, and so most gave and received books as gifts, particularly during the holidays.

As explains, “This increase in giving books as presents reinforced Iceland’s culture as a nation of bookaholics – a study conducted by Bifröst University in 2013 found that half the country’s population read at least eight books a year. Every year since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has published a catalogue – called Bókatíðindi (‘Book Bulletin’, in English) – that is sent to every household in the country in mid-November during the Reykjavik Book Fair. People use the catalogue to order books to give friends and family for Christmas.

During the festive season, gifts are opened on December 24 and, by tradition, everyone reads the books they have been given straight away, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale called jólabland.”

How Jólabókaflóð gained global notoriety

Jólabókaflóð has Christopher Norris to thank for, essentially, giving it global notoriety. In 2015, Norris (a senior executive-level media, publishing, and social entrepreneur and a pioneer of World Book Day in the UK) was looking into the subject of Iceland’s book trade and book market and there learned about Jólabókaflóð. 

Long-story-short: Norris “realized that the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóðið offered a fabulous opportunity to promote book buying and reading within the same initiative, so the seeds of Jólabókaflóð were planted.” Norris then launched a London-based version of Jólabókaflóð in November of 2015. 

A month later he met “with Hlynur Guðjónsson, the Consul General and Trade Commissioner at the Consulate General of Iceland in New York, to share the vision of spreading the custom and practice of Jólabókaflóðið to the UK and beyond. Mr Guðjónsson gave Christopher’s Jólabókaflóð plans his endorsement and facilitated contact with Icelandic organizations of potential mutual interest, including embassies and book trade bodies such as the Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature and the Icelandic Literature Center, both players in the annual ‘Christmas book flood’.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Through Norris’ continued efforts and collaborations with various organizations and book-related articles and events, Jólabókaflóð has continued to spread across the globe. 

Give the best gift: a book

Iceland is one of the most literate countries in the world, with a 99% literacy rate. A correlation between the two? Quite possibly!

As a people, we genuinely love to curl up with a good book and get lost in its world. And the Christmas holiday simply would not be complete without a new book. For anyone who’s ever been in Iceland during the holidays or leading up to them, the book stores and book markets are crazy-busy! Publishers release new books in the weeks leading up to the holidays, and folks scrambe to scoop up the latest and greatest novels in time for Christmas Eve (the day when we open our presents).

So perhaps this holiday season, you might consider an old Icelandic tradition and curl up with a lovely book on Christmas Eve while you wait for (the American) Santa to arrive with presents. (I say American Santa because in Iceland we have 13 Santa Clauses who “come down from the mountain” in the days leading up to Christmas Eve … but that’s a tradition to be told another day). 

As for me, I know that I will certainly be honoring my country’s tradition of Jólabókaflóð (hint hint to my family: get me books!), and perhaps I’ll manage to finish reading my 200th book in 2023 on Christmas Eve! •