The Book Flood: Exploring the Icelandic tradition of book-giving at Christmas Stop dreaming of a White Christmas - an Icelandic Christmas is where it’s at

Instead of discussing who the Black Hood may be before a 9am sociology lecture, imagine heated debates that were had over the protagonist in the latest historical fiction. Instead of stilted conversation with your hairdresser about where you’re off to tonight, a discussion of the latest bestseller and whether it really lived up to the author’s last work. Initiating small talk with “what have you read lately?” as opposed to discussing dissertations (dissertations are like dreams. No one cares about anyone’s but their own). This is not just a book-lover’s dream, but a reality for Icelanders.


Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, was the first non-English speaking city to be awarded the title of UNESCO City of Literature in 2011. This city exudes adoration and appreciation for literature. Literary tours are easily accessible, with some even downloadable to smartphones, as well as benches dotted around the city which sync to an app that offers audio readings.  

The Icelandic proverb “ad ganga med bok I maganum” translates directly to “everyone has a book in their stomach”. For the natives, this translates to “everyone has the desire to give birth to a book”. According to UNESCO, Iceland’s small population of 340,000 contains more writers and more books published per capita than any country in the world. Though literature appreciation and the tradition of writing stories is deeply ingrained within Iceland, we cannot ignore that inspiration may come from the stunning backdrop of the country itself. Even outside of Icelanders themselves, writers globally are entranced by the scenery. Take J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits – inspired by Icelandic elvish mythology – or even our own Seamus Heaney who recounts facing “the unmagical invitations of Iceland” in his poem ‘North’. But why is literature ingrained so deeply in Icelandic culture? How did these people get so lucky? This is the question on every bibliophile’s lips. Well, it all comes back to their Christmas tradition of “Jolabokaflod” or, in the closest English translation, the Christmas “Book Flood”.

When does Christmas officially begin? This is an often debated question here in Ireland. Some people will say it’s not the festive season until a mince pie has been eaten, or maybe not before the Christmas lights have been switched on. Maybe you only start celebrating after you’ve seen Love Actually or attended Christmas movie screenings at the Lighthouse. I know I only start feeling festive after two annual events, the first being my initial use of the Mariah Carey ‘festive’ gif and the second being a drunken sing-a-long of The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’. However, in Iceland, Christmas has an official start. There is no debate. Christmas begins when the annual book catalogue is delivered to all homes. This catalogue contains nearly all the books published that year, and is the ultimate guide to gift-giving for Icelanders. When this catalogue is delivered, Icelanders begin to pick out the books they will be gifting that year. It is tradition to open all presents on Christmas Eve,, and everyone will receive at least one or two books. This leads to a rather more wholesome version of Christmas Day.  In the lead-up to this, bookstores and libraries across Iceland begin to resemble popular gig venues, with celebrated authors doing readings and other literary themed events taking place.


The history of the Book Flood dates back to World War Two. Rations meant that Christmas gift options were limited due to lack of imports. Icelanders had money and they had paper. From this, books became the gift of choice. This tradition has lasted, probably because of the deeply rooted role books play in the typical Icelandic Christmastime. What nicer way could one spend Christmas other than reading?

The Book Flood has had obvious positive effects on Icelandic culture. Conversations become focused upon the topic of books – who is reading what, how certain authors are doing, what will be the most popular books of the year. This lends a certain intellectual reputation to the people of Iceland. Certainly, it is a deeply intellectual country – where else would small talk immediately go to literature? It does seem more intriguing than the weather to just about everyone you see. Never mind small talk, where else would book reviews get pride of place on primetime TV? Media which is more popular in Ireland, like cinema, are shunned to radio late at night or early in the morning.

In case you want to emulate an Icelandic Christmas, here is a short gift guide to what are likely to be the most popular books this Christmas season:

Elena Favilli, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. Penguin (2017).

Illustrated by sixty female artists from all over the world, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls tells us about the extraordinary lives of one hundred absolute queens, from pirates to scientists to ballerinas. A perfect gift, these lives are all told in fairy tale format, each with an accompanying portrait.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2017).

Has there ever been a happy Christmastime without an underlying Harry Potter theme? (I mean, probably, yes. For other people at least.) Nevertheless, this is a wonderful present for any dedicated fan. Based on the exhibition at the British Library, this book promises to give an insight into the classes taught at Hogwarts through manuscripts, illustrations, and original sketches.

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage. Penguin Random House (2017).

The ideal gift for anyone who was a fan of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, this book will transport the reader straight back into the world of alethiometers, daemons, and of course, Dust with a capital D.  

Zadie Smith, Swing Time. Penguin Books (2016).

For those looking for something a little more literary fiction and a little less reminiscent Young Adult, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time would be more than appropriate. This is a story of dancing, female friendship, and modern culture, set between London, New York, and West Africa. A book that is definitely not just for Christmas, but may make an appreciated present anyway.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends. Faber & Faber (2017).

I’m not sure if any Trinity student managed to escape reading Sally Rooney’s debut novel this year but if you know a friend who has, it might just be your duty to correct that. The protagonist here is a Trinity student herself and is entangled in a number of messy relationships. Conversations with Friends is a perfect Kris Kindle gift, allowing your receiver to daydream that their life is more literary success and sensual affairs than guilty coffee breaks and procrastinating on Ussher 4.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *