Jolabokaflod – A Literary Icelandic Christmas Tradition

stack of book with a Santa's hat on top

blog authorBy Johanna Sigurðardóttir shield verificationVerified Expert

    With dark starry nights and more than a dusting of snow, Iceland is a magical place at Christmastime. As many countries with colder climates, Iceland goes all out when it comes to Christmas festivities. Much of December is given over to reveling in the country’s Christmas traditions and its lively festive spirit. Jolabokaflod is one such tradition that is still very much enjoyed in Iceland today. In this article, we’ll turn the pages on all of the following:

    1. The Jolabokaflod tradition – What is it?
    2. The interesting history of Jolabokaflod
    3. How to pronounce Jolabokaflod
    4. The popularity of reading in Iceland 
    5. The festive season in Iceland and Christmas folklore

    The Jolabokaflod tradition 

    The Jolabokaflod tradition is strong in Iceland and is very much still alive today. But what is it exactly? Jolabokaflod is the practice of spending Christmas Eve curled up and contently reading a book. If this sounds like heaven to you, then what are you waiting for to spend Christmas in Iceland?!

    What is the story behind Jolabokaflod?

    The tradition of Jolabokaflod began during the Second World War. Paper was pretty much the only thing that wasn’t strictly rationed in Iceland, so the printing of press articles and literature continued unabated throughout the war. As a result, people got into the habit of giving books as gifts to family and friends. 

    In Iceland, Christmas Eve is the main day for holiday celebrations. Families will usually enjoy a Christmas meal together and exchange presents shortly after. Finally, they will then spend the evening reading one of the books that they will most likely have received.

    It may seem surprising, but you will often find whole families curled up on their sofas reading. They might be nibbling on Christmas chocolate or sipping a cup of cocoa as they turn the pages. The fire will likely be roaring, and the candles lit. 

    Sounds cozy, doesn’t it? What a far cry from the video games and loud films that frequently take their place in other countries, right?! Of course, these noisier and more dynamic forms of entertainment still go on in Iceland. But in many houses, the Jolabokaflod tradition is upheld. Albeit perhaps reluctantly for some members of the family! 

    Jolabokaflod pronunciation 

    The Icelandic Jolabokaflod pronunciation can be tricky indeed. It is very easy to get in a muddle when trying to decipher and then replicate its unusual sounds. Jolabokaflod is actually a relatively simple word to pronounce though. 

    The main tip is to make the initial J sound more of an ‘I’ sound. From there, space out the syllables as they come, and you’ll likely have it down. It’s almost like you’re saying jolly book flood… Well, almost. Quickly listen to the pronunciation on YouTube, and you’ll be saying it perfectly.

    Reading in Iceland  

    As you can imagine, Iceland's reading habits have been significantly impacted by this tradition. The Icelandic culture of book reading has become deeply embedded in society, and it is a highly literate nation. 

    With such a small population and high living standards, education has reached excellent levels. As such, children learn to read from an early age and their interest in books lives on as they reach adulthood. 

    kid reading books on christmas day

    A recent study by a leading university in Iceland looked into the levels of reading levels across the country. They found that around 50% of Icelandic people read more than eight books a year. The percentage of people reading at least one book per year was well over 90%. 

    So Iceland is a nation of bookworms, which has buoyed the publishing industry. In fact, the book publishing industry is pretty much built around the Jolabokaflod tradition. 

    Every November, there is a national book fair. And since 1944, a book bulletin has been posted out to all the households in Iceland. They will traditionally use this to choose and order their Christmas gifts. 

    How do Icelandic people celebrate the Christmas season? 

    Visiting Iceland for Christmas is a wonderful experience. Twinkling lights and Christmas trees decorate the streets and houses of Iceland in December, brightening the wintry nights. There is pretty much always snow on the ground and plenty of festive cheer. 

    As mentioned, the main day for celebrating Christmas is Christmas Eve or December 24th. This means that December 23rd becomes the night before Christmas. This is when the shops and markets are busiest. 

    People are out and about for the day picking up last last-minute gifts for their family and will often spend the evening catching up with friends and family for drinks. The country’s bars and pubs become busy with laughter and celebrations. 

    Christmas tree in Reykjavik city

     It is also traditional to enjoy a fish supper or skate on December 23rd, although for many people, this is no longer such a strong tradition mainly due to the strong taste and smell of the skate fish!.

    The next day is Christmas Eve, a day usually spent with close family. Dinner, commonly roast lamb or fish, is prepared and enjoyed around the family table. It is always a special meal, but there is not a strong tradition as to what dish should be prepared.

    Then, on the 24th and the 25th, people start to move around again. Some families spend Christmas Day meeting up with other relatives, while others head out to catch up with friends at their homes or at the local bar. Whatever they choose, the holidays are still very much in full swing.

    Other Christmas traditions in Iceland  

    One area where Iceland does things differently at Christmas has to do with Father Christmas. Instead of just one Santa Claus, there are thirteen! These 13 Jólasveinar or Santas are also known as the Yule Lads. They come from high up in North Iceland, where they live with their mother, Gryla the Witch. 

    They allegedly live in Dimmuborgir, north of Mývatn. It is a lava field with several whimsical rock formations and caves, where Gyla and the Yule Lads dwell. You can easily reach this area with your Iceland camper rental!

    Each Yule Lad has a different name and character. But one thing that they do have in common is that they are all a little mischievous. Some of them play tricks, while others bring gifts. They will each visit, one at a time, on the thirteen days leading up to Christmas Eve. 

    These Yule Lads have names such as Door Slammer, Sausage Stealer and Candle Snatcher. Each of their names gives you an idea of the kinds of tricks that they get up to. 

    When it comes to gifts, children and any adults hoping for presents should leave their shoes next to a window. When morning comes, they will find a gift inside their shoe. If they have been good, then this could be cookies or chocolate. But if they have been naughty, then this could be an old potato or some other unwelcome offering. 

    This tradition brings a whole lot of fun and laughter over the days leading up to Christmas. For parents, it means that they have to get pretty theatrical and creative during this time of the year, but it’s all part of the Christmas fun.

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