Jolabokaflod: The Icelandic Christmas Book Flood

Jolabokaflod or, in its original Icelandic, Jólabókaflóð. Just what is this Icelandic book tradition, and what is it not?

How do you pronounce Jólabókaflóð? Should you incorporate these cozy, Icelandic holiday traditions into your own family Christmas celebrations?

Well, we’ve got answers for you, along with a ton of fun and interesting tidbits concerning this nearly eighty year old Icelandic phenomenon!

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How to Pronounce Jólabókaflóð?

First things first, how are you supposed to pronounce it?! 

Well, not like it looks. But also not entirely unlike it looks, either.

The phonetic pronunciation is yo-la-bok-a-flot. Just do your best, and we’re sure you’ll get brownie points with the Icelanders for good effort.

What is Jolabokaflod?

Contrary to some circulating definitions, Jólabókaflóð actually refers to the publishing frenzy or “Christmas book flood” which occurs at Icelandic publishing houses just before the holiday season. 

Thousands of fresh, beautiful hardbacks are printed — usually starting around October — in order to supply citizens with their favorite Christmas gifts: books. 

Every year scores of new books are released, allowing both seasoned authors and up-and-coming voices alike to have an equal bite out of the market. 

They also release a yearly pamphlet of the books that will be available during Jolabokaflod to get everyone excited about which books they’ll try to scoop up for their loved ones.

From, which is obviously the official website of this 70+ year old tradition:

Every year since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has published a catalogue — called Bókatíðindi (‘Tidings of Books’, 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 24 December 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.

They send their “Tidings of Books” to every house.

Every. House.

What Jolabokaflod is Not

Jólabókaflóð is often misconstrued as the actual act or tradition of giving books as gifts on Christmas Eve, and then consuming them — along with a steamy cup of hot chocolate — that same evening.

While this cozy Icelandic tradition is often unanimous with Jólabókaflóð, and is intrinsically connected to it, it’s actually just the way they celebrate! 

For literally everyone, Christmas Eve is gift time, and gift time means books. 

After unwrapping all of those books, everyone snuggles up to read at least one and chug on a mug of sompn’ sompn’.

How Did Jólabókaflóð Originate?

It all started back in the dark days of World War II. Imports were heavily restricted, so supplies were severely limited and pretty much everything one might want as a holiday gift was in short supply or just plain unavailable. 

Everything, that is, except paper.

Paper was one of a handful of materials that was not rationed. That meant that during the Christmas season, stores were full of the one type of product they could get their hands on: books.

And thus began Jólabókaflóð, which helped to rekindle Iceland’s ongoing love affair with books. According to a 2013 study conducted by Bifröst University, 50% of Icelanders read at least 8 books per year.

Compare that to the United States, where the same percentage of people reads only at least 5 books per year.

They even have a phrase about how many of their people have, “að ganga með bók í maganum'” which translates as “a book in their stomach.” 

This is a nod to the fact that 1 in 10 Icelanders will write and/or publish a book in their lifetime, according to a study by BBC.

So Icelanders love them some reading, writing, and storytelling. And they have a holiday tradition to prove it. Pretty darn cool, if you ask us.

How to Celebrate Jolabokaflod: Ideas & Inspiration

So maybe Jólabókaflóð isn’t quite what you thought it was, but that doesn’t mean you can’t adopt the Icelandic Christmas Eve book tradition of giving fresh new reads to your family and friends!

Adopting traditions like this can become an incredible means of bringing your family closer than ever during the holidays. 

So, the question remains, how to celebrate Jolabokaflod? How can you establish this custom within your family and have a ‘flood’ of books in your own home this Christmas?

Well, it’s pretty simple!

  1. Give books on Christmas Eve.
  2. Serve up some delicious hot cocoa and/or brown ale.
  3. Send everybody off to bed for some night reading!

Oh, and we ‘Mericans already have our own book bulletin delivered to every house. It’s called Amazon. Boom. Check it.

As with adopting any new tradition, stick to the spirit, but mostly just have fun with it!

Maybe theme your books each year? Or set a qualifier that you have to exchange a book that you’ve already read and enjoyed?

Reading aloud is also a ton of fun, too! Consider incorporating it into your evening to give everyone a chance to hear an excerpt from each of your new reads.

Here’s some more info about the Jólabókaflóð tradition, as well as more on Icelandic literature and reading habits, where it’s pretty much their national sport.

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Daniel Szczesniak

Daniel launched All Gifts Considered in 2013 to help people find the best gift ideas for anyone and any occasion. He has worked for Northwest Gifts, an online gift shop based in Oregon specializing in American-made and personalized gifts, for...

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