This Icelandic Tradition Can Transform Your Christmas Eve

Tess Gionet
·4 min read

Cookies set out for Santa. Your favorite holiday movie and hot chocolate. Caroling around the neighborhood. Reindeer dust (colored sugar) sprinkled on the walkway. Christmas light sightseeing. Matching pajama sets. When it comes to Christmas Eve, there are so many great ways to celebrate. It’s one of the best parts of being a parent– figuring out what meaningful and magical traditions to pass on. But there might be a tradition you’re missing that could quickly become your family’s favorite. Have you ever heard of Jolabokaflod?

Jolabokaflod- what it is?

Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood” in English, is the Icelandic tradition of giving and unwrapping new books on Christmas Eve, cozying up with family, and reading into the night. It sounds simple, and might not dazzle your child the way your neighbor’s rooftop light show does, but any parent who’s watched their kid squeal on the first snow of the year knows that its the simplest things that carry the most joy (Plus, simple = less work for parents).

Jolabokaflod has a rich history in Iceland, dating back to World War II when paper was one of the only commodities not rationed. Books were shared at Christmas with abundance and extra love, as other gifts were in short supply. Today, the tradition still stands: in late September, a free catalog of Iceland’s newest books called the Bokatidindi hits every home’s mailbox, and Icelanders hit the bookstores. This “book flood” is responsible for most of Iceland’s book purchases for the entire year. The books with the most fanfare are saved to be published during this season in hopes of ending up under the tree or in a stocking.

Iceland is a nation of book lovers. A recent study from 2019 shows that on average they read 2.3 books per month (most Americans read four books that year, and a quarter of Americans have not read a single book in the past four years). Plus, one in ten Icelanders will go on to publish a book of their own one day. Could this be because of Jolabokaflod? It’s hard to know, but it makes sense that a nation with a rich tradition devoted to all things books will engrain a love of reading into their people.

Jolabokaflod can be instead of trying to over-do it

Last year on Christmas Eve, my family tried to pack in too much. It was the first year my young daughter really understood what Christmas was, and we didn’t want her to miss out on anything. We rode on a Polar Express themed train, drank endless mugs of hot cocoa, sang all the carols, and baked too many Christmas cookies. By the time Christmas morning came, we all felt a little over it; by doing too much the day before, we had robbed Christmas of some magic. This year, the idea of a quiet evening spent pouring over a new book or two as we listen for the jingle of Santa’s sleigh sounds nothing short of perfection. We will rest, and save our big excitement for the morning.

Books challenge kids to ask questions, to form connections, to widen their perspectives, to grow their consciousness, and to raise their self-esteem. Reading together strengthens emotional bonds between parents and kids, and gives us a common language to talk through big feelings. Plus, reading is a calm activity– it lowers stress, and it’s much less cleanup than a batch of cookies. While we don’t have a Bokatidindi for you, these modern fairy tales would make a sweet choice, or maybe one of these classics, perfect for reading out loud. Or make it even simpler and do a distanced book swap with your parent friends.

Think about adding Jolabokaflod to your Christmas Eve this year. Whatever book you pick out for your little on Christmas Eve, know that you are sending a powerful message: this is a special gift, because reading is important. You might just find that it’s the holiday tradition your family looks forward to most, year after year.

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