Imagine: It’s Christmas Eve, and you’ve got that jittery feeling of wanting to fast-forward to Christmas morning, yet you’re too restless to fall asleep. Then—what’s this?—a family member hands you a slender, rectangular wrapped parcel. It can’t be anything but a book, but why are you receiving it the night before Christmas?
You unwrap it to discover which book a loved one has chosen specifically for you—because it was a favorite they wanted to pass along, or simply because it made them think of you—and then comes the best part of your night: You curl up in bed with some chocolate and/or a holiday drink and spend the rest of the night reading until you doze off. Congratulations, you’ve just experienced Jólabókaflóð!
The coziest of holiday traditions and a great cure for the aforementioned “Christmas insomnia,” Iceland’s “Yule book flood” has caught on outside of its country of origin in recent years once the internet got wind of it. That’s mostly thanks to NPR for bringing the term overseas in 2012, for introducing the quaint concept of a flood of books. Jólabókaflóð (pronounced yo-la-bok-a-flot) technically refers to the peak of the Icelandic publishing industry’s year: in the 2-3 months leading up to Christmas, the country releases the majority of the year’s titles, usually 500-1,000 books, at once.
The tradition began during World War II, Hildur Knútsdóttir explains in The Reykjavik Grapevine, when harsh restrictions on imports left the Icelandic people with few gift options come Christmastime. Because the restrictions on imported paper were a lot more lenient, books became the obvious gift of choice—a tradition that hasn’t flagged in the 70+ years since.
To prepare for the Jólabókaflóð, one must first get a Bókatíðindi. The “Journal of Books” is an annual catalog that shows up in the mailbox of every single Icelandic citizen. Think back to Scholastic book fairs when you were a kid, and the delight with which you would pore over the catalog checking the boxes for all the books you couldn’t wait to get your hands on. Icelandic researcher Baldur Bjarnason summed it up perfectly for NPR: “It’s like the firing of the guns at the opening of the race.”
And it all culminates in Christmas Eve. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Jólabókaflóð involves exchanging presents on Christmas Eve, after years of celebrating with family in Germany (though I was definitely scandalized the first time it happened). But in that case, you get all the presents out of the way in order to have the entire day of the 25th to prepare a lavish feast, and I remember going to sleep shortly after the last present was unwrapped. Staying up late to read your new present is something else entirely.
It’s the ultimate in hygge (to invoke the Danish concept that has similarly swept social media): peak coziness, low-key celebration, keen self-care. And it’s so easy to incorporate into your own holiday traditions!
Pajamas? Check. In fact, now you can even get Jólabókaflóð jammies from Out of Print and Read It Forward.
Your beverage of choice is entirely dependent on your mood: hot chocolate is always a classic, or you can keep in theme with jólabland (fizzy orange drink + brown ale), though I’m partial to some Glühwein (German mulled wine).
And while there may not be a Bókatíðindi in your mailbox, you can still get in the spirit with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s (the folks behind those amazing American Gods-themed scents) special Jólabókaflóð perfume—which comes with a surprise book gift!
Speaking of books, there’s the biggest challenge: figuring out which to buy for whom. Or you could follow Read It Forward’s lead and combine traditions by celebrating Jólabókaflóð with a bunch of Book Blind Dates: Buy a bunch of books, wrap and tag them with just enough hints as to their content, then let the recipients decide which book speaks to them. (There’s also a White Elephant clause to make sure everyone heads to bed with a new book they haven’t yet read.)
Exchanging books is one of those simple but remarkably portentous gifts. Just last year the Tor.com staff was reminiscing on the most important books we’ve received for Christmas—for some of us, the first introduction to an author or the last time we received a book as a gift, the funny books we would never have picked out for ourselves or the kinds of stories that feel an awful lot like dreaming. It’s kind of insane that it’s never occurred to all of us to celebrate Jólabókaflóð before this, but it’s never too late to start.
Will you celebrate the Yule Book Flood this Christmas?
Top image: Jolabokaflod T-shirt via Out of Print