Culturally Relevant

Start a New Bookish Tradition with Jolabokaflod This Christmas

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Rachel Brittain

Contributing Editor

Rachel is a writer from Arkansas, most at home surrounded by forests and animals much like a Disney Princess. She spends most of her time writing stories and playing around in imaginary worlds. You can follow her writing at Twitter and Instagram: @rachelsbrittain

My favorite holiday traditions have been with me from a young age, bringing back a sense of nostalgia that melds perfectly with my memories of winter. Some, like decorating the tree and visiting the local botanical gardens all done up in lights, have remained over the years, while others, like setting out cookies and cheese for Santa (yes, that one dairy farmer commercial from the late 1990s really worked on me and my sister) have waned. But a new joy in adulthood has been finding and incorporating newfound traditions into my life.

One tradition that my sister and I started last year is swapping books on Christmas Eve. This tradition, known as Jolabokaflod, originated in Iceland, and it’s one I think all book lovers deserve to know about.

The History of Jolabokaflod

Iceland has always had a strong literary history, but it wasn’t until WWII that it became a standard part of Christmas celebrations. Jólabókaflóðið, pronounced yola-boka-flowded, translates into English as “Christmas book flood” and is a Christmas Eve tradition that began relatively recently in Iceland following World War II. According to and NPR, the tradition began because paper was one of the few commodities without strict import restrictions during the war. Icelanders, who are known for their love of reading and publish more books per capita than anywhere else in the world, according to NPR, began gifting books to each other for the holiday.

The tradition has grown since 1944, with Icelanders gifting each other books to be opened and read on Christmas Eve, often along with hot chocolate or a nonalcoholic Icelandic holiday drink known as jólabland. According to the president of the Iceland Publisher’s Association, Kristjan B. Jonasson, “giving books as presents is very deeply rooted in how families perceive Christmas as a holiday.”

It’s so ingrained, in fact, that a book catalog called Bókatíðindi that gives an exhaustive overview of that year’s publications is distributed country-wide in mid-November. How are you feeling, bookish people? Ready to move to Iceland yet?

How To Start This Bookish Holiday Tradition

As picturesque as Iceland may be, you don’t have to move there to start a Jolabokaflod tradition for yourself. I first learned about the tradition on Litsy, a literary social media app where book lovers can join in all sorts of book swaps and exchanges — including Jolabokaflod-themed ones. But since the tradition is all about sharing books with loved ones, all you really need is a friend or family member who loves books just as much as you to join in on the Jolabokaflod tradition.

My sister and I like to exchange novellas since those are more manageable to read (or at least read a chunk of) without staying up all night on Christmas Eve. We also include a chocolate treat to go along with it. That’s not a must, but I do think it makes for a nice addition. Wrap it, don’t wrap it. Read it all in one go, or enjoy it over Christmas break. There’s really no wrong way to make a new holiday tradition your own.

Book Recommendations to Get You Started

If you’re hard-pressed to think of any books you might like to gift for Jolabokaflod, here are a few books of different genres and lengths you might consider.

For the historical book lover

The Bookbinder book cover

The Bookbinder by Pip Williams

Peggy works as a bookbinder in Oxford, England, with her twin sister, Maude. She’s always looked out for Maude, but with the war going on and Belgian refugees arriving in town, not to mention injured soldiers fresh off the front, Peggy’s motivations for doing so come into question for the first time. Does Maude really need her? Or is Peggy just using her as an excuse not to follow her dreams and study for the entrance exams at Oxford? Pip Williams weaves a gorgeous tale of women who love and work with books, just as in her first novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words.

For a series of weird, interconnected stories that won’t take long to read

Terrace Story book cover

Terrace Story by Hilary Leichter

A mysterious terrace begins appearing at a young couple’s apartment — but only when their friend Stephanie visits. Where does it go when it’s not there? And what does it have to do with Stephanie? As the novel traces the lives and experiences of a cast of characters, we slowly begin to make sense of what’s happening with this strange terrace as it changes the lives of everyone who encounters it.

For the mystery lover in your life

Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q Sutanto book cover

Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Maybe the best cozy murder mystery I’ve ever read, Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers is sweet, funny, and full of lovably mixed-up characters. If you don’t want to be adopted as part of Vera Wong’s found family by the end of this novel, I truly don’t know what you’re doing. Unless you really are a murderer, in which case I guess I can understand why you wouldn’t want to get too close to this canny old lady determined to get to the bottom of any crime.

For the dad who only reads nonfiction

The Warmth of Other Suns book cover

The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

If there’s a person in your life fixated on biographies or nonfiction histories, this book about The Great Migration from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent is just what they need. Wilkerson tells the story of the mass exodus of almost six million Black Americans from the south from 1915 to 1970 by following three individuals who experienced it firsthand. It’s a highly researched account that’s as informative as it is moving.

For the kiddos

Otto the Ornament book cover

Otto The Ornament by Troy Cummings

This funny and heartfelt story about an ornament who wants to find the tree in which it can shine its brightest is perfect for kids aged 3-7. It’s full of fun wordplay that kids and parents will love, as well as a message about kindness and found family.

Discover some other easy bookish holiday traditions you might want to incorporate into your festivities this year or start a new bookish tradition of your own.