The origins of Jólabókaflóð, the Christmas Book Flood
There is a phrase in Icelandic, "að ganga með bók í maganum", meaning that everyone "has a book in their stomach". If this is the case, then the statistic that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book over their lifetime comes as no surprise. One could even say reading seems to be inherent to the Icelandic psyche.
Before Halldór Laxness was the first Icelander to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, Icelandic contemporary literature was not on the world map. Laxness can be said to have encouraged generations of Icelanders to write their own stories as well as to instill a sense of national identity.
Consider that in the 13th Century, the Icelandic sagas that tell the stories of the country's Norse settlers, who began to arrive on the island in the late 9th Century, were written on scraps of vellum and household items. Consider the storytelling that took place over the long, dark winter seasons. Consider that the country has a literacy rate of 100%. Consider the inspiration foreign writers gained from the Sagas such as Jorge Luis Borges, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Seamus Heaney to name a few. Consider that in 2011 Reykjavík was designated a UNESCO City of Literature.
During World War II in Iceland, paper was one of the few commodities not rationed. Icelanders, therefore, congregated over the gifting of books since other supplies were in short supply.
Iceland’s population was not large enough to support a year-round publishing industry, so publishers flooded the market with new titles just as the year was coming to an end. As Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944, in the midst of the war, this instilled even further a sense of national identity bound up with communing over a love and appreciation of books.
Every year since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has published a catalog – Bókatíðindi – that is sent to every household in mid-November during the Reykjavik Book Fair. People use the catalog to order books to give to friends and family over the Holidays. Jólabókaflóð ("the Christmas Book Flood") refers to this retail cycle that begins with the launch of new books to the reading of those books.
The annual Reykjavik Book Fair has been an event in the City of Literature since Reykjavík became a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in 2011. The fair, hosted by the Icelandic Publishers Association and the Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature office, is open to all and entrance is free of charge. The fair is the nexus of the Jólabókaflóð with a diverse literary program with readings, discussions, and story hours all connected to books published in Iceland over the past year.
While the tradition of gifting books is popular worldwide, the tradition that is becoming a cultural phenomenon in Iceland is the exchange of books on Christmas Eve followed by spending the rest of the evening reading said new book.