Jólabókaflóðið: A Bookish Holiday Tradition

Tradition (noun): an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom) – Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 11th edition

No matter where you are in the world, December is a time of tradition.

Traditions are an essential part of human culture. They connect us to one another and provide comfort, structure, and a sense of belonging.

While traditions, by definition, are established and predictable practices, they are not eternally unchanging. Some traditions have been passed down for generations; others are newer. All traditions have a beginning, and sometimes, traditions end.

Traditions can end for many reasons. When traditions change because of a big life event, like the death of a loved one or a move to a new place, it can be difficult to move on. This is the situation my family finds ourselves in this year.

When coping with a loss, it can help to start a new tradition. Thus, my family has been seeking out ideas and in the course of my research I (re)discovered what sounds to me like the most comforting holiday tradition in the world. It originated in Iceland.

Despite how cold this picture looks, Iceland’s average winter temperatures are more mild than Wisconsin’s.


In Iceland, it is traditional to give books for Christmas. Gifts are opened on December 24 (as they are in many northern European countries), and the evening is spent reading and enjoying hot chocolate.

The Icelandic tradition of book-giving can be traced back to World War II. In 1944, after Iceland gained independence from Denmark, rationing was in full effect. One of the few commodities not rationed in Iceland was paper, making books an ideal gift.

The tradition of holiday book-giving stuck around after the war, and has since had a profound effect on the Icelandic publishing industry. Jólabókaflóðið roughly translates to “Christmas Book Flood”. The term refers to the months before Christmas, which is when the majority of new books are published in Iceland. Jólabókaflóðið begins when the Iceland Publishers Association distributes a free catalog of all the year’s new releases to every home in the country.

When the world outside looks like this, a cozy evening of reading and drinking hot chocolate sounds heavenly.

If you, like me, think this sounds like the a most excellent experience, here are a few ways you might adapt a similar practice to fit into your already-existing traditions:

Pick a Day

If your Christmas Eve is already *ahem* booked, or you don’t celebrate Christmas, pick a different day to exchange books and enjoy a cozy read. Maybe Midwinter (the longest night of the year) or December 26 (as a way to decompress after the hustle and bustle of Christmas Day).

Because Iceland is much farther north than Wisconsin, it’s winter days are shorter and nights are longer. The shortest day in Eau Claire has 8 hours and 47 minutes of sunlight. The same day in Reykjavík has 4 hours and 7 minutes.

Get Excited to Discover New Books

While Americans don’t automatically receive book catalogs in the mail each November, (a failing, obviously), that doesn’t mean such lists don’t exist. Pick up a copy of BookPage at the Eau Claire library (while supplies last) or visit their website for new book reviews. Alternately, take a look at the New York Public Library’s Best Books of 2022 (including lists for kids and teens), or Time Magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2022. Or chat with a local librarian – we love to give recommendations.

Be Budget-Friendly

Is a brand-new book for everyone not in your budget? The library can help! For a low-cost option, visit the new Friends of the Library Bookstore, open during normal library operating hours. Most books at the store are $2 or less.

For a totally free option, check out a variety of library books for the family – just make sure everyone knows they have to return them.

Spread the Book-Giving Love

Help the Friends of the Library reach their goal of making sure every child in our community receives a new book during the holiday season. The Friends’ annual book drive, Give a Kid a Book, is accepting donations until December 17. Drop off donations of new children’s and teen books at the library or contribute a monetary donation by mail (Attn: GAKAB, 400 Eau Claire St. Eau Claire, WI 54701) or using the online form.


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