We're Getting On Board With Jólabókaflóð This Holiday Season

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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This holiday season, we’re starting a new family tradition. It’s a cozy one, a comfortable one, a calm one. It’s called Jólabókaflóð, and even though it’s hard to spell (for me, at least), it’s all about a love of reading.

Jólabókaflóð originated in Iceland, which Read It Forward notes is the third most literate country in the world. 93% of Icelanders read a book every single year, compared to 73% of Americans. You see, every year, while Americans kick off the holiday season with Halloween decorations, in Iceland, the holiday seasons starts with the distribution — to every single house in Iceland — of Bokatidindi, a catalog of every new book published in Iceland that year. It’s the official start of the holidays, which, the Mother Nature Network says, happens sometime in mid-November (how refreshing!). Thus the excitement of Jólabókaflóð begins.

In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced “yo-la-bok-a-flot,” and it translates as “The Christmas Book Flood.”

So what is it, and why are we doing it?

Jólabókaflóð is, simply, the Christmas Eve tradition of giving everyone books. After you give books, you curl up under a warm blanket, drink hot chocolate or a non-alcoholic seasonal ale called jolabland, and … read.

Yep, that’s right. You spend a quiet, peaceful night reading. No whizzing toys. No tearing into presents — except for books, of course. No squabbling over games, no building sets, no fights over “one more present, mama, pleeeeease.”

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Nope. Jólabókaflóð will reign supreme. From the way in which my kids have embraced the closely-tied Scandinavian tradition of hygge, a Danish word, Hygge Home explains, which means “a feeling or moment that is extraordinary, charming, cozy or special.” Emphasis on the cozy during the dark days of winter, when warm blankets, pillows, fuzzy socks, warm drinks, soft lighting, quiet, and gentle snuggliness. Hygge, to us, is pajama pants and robes with thick, toasty socks while we cuddle up. Jólabókaflóð will embrace hygge — with books.

We plan to buy each kid age-appropriate books they will love: one from each member of the family, so they have choices. We will take each kid out to select the books they think their siblings will love, and help them pick books for mama and daddy. So everyone will end up with four books to choose from. Four books, a wealth, a treasure, not something from an e-reader, but a tangible thing. Probably Biscuit books and early readers for my youngest; maybe Magic Treehouse and dinosaur books for my middle son; mythology and Roman and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings books for my oldest. My husband will receive obscure nonfiction on fossils and natural history; I’ll get fiction I’ve been wanting and haven’t had time to read. We will open the carefully wrapped presents set under the tree: those presents, and only those presents.

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Under our Jólabókaflóð tree, I do not want piles and piles of “stuff.” I only want books. I want it simple. I want to emphasize its beauty and simplicity. I will hide everything else until the crack of dawn on Christmas morning. I will put my e-reader and my computer down. We will cuddle up. And we will read, both together and separate, something quiet, a visit to other worlds and yet something that tethers us inexorably to our own.

I dream of this night, this quiet night of mulled wine and cider and blankets and silence.

Jólabókaflóð began, according to the Iowa City Public Library, when Iceland had just gained independence from Denmark in 1944. Paper wasn’t rationed, and books became a popular present. And so: the Flood of Books was born.

Wanna institute a Jólabókaflóð of your own? Here are some tips for you and yours that we plan to follow:

1. Choose your books, especially for your kids, carefully. Make sure they’re tailored to age and interest. Don’t stress about grade level, what they “should be reading,” what their teachers and classmates are reading, or whatever. Get them what they love. If that means books a grade level or two below where they are, or even something that annoys you, do it.

2. For the littlest, I think sticker books count. You want to enjoy Jólabókaflóð, not spend it reading aloud. Maybe a little bit. But not too much. You deserve your own book-reading time.

3. Make your kids nests. Our youngest like what we call “boat baskets”: we line laundry baskets with blankets, stick a pillow in the back, and cover them up. They think it’s special and comfy and warm and wonderful. It’s their pinnacle of hygge.

4. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s not books. But maybe some warm socks as gifts might be in order, or you can buy them beforehand and whip them out.

5. You aren’t going anywhere. Pajama party time, as Yo Gabba Gabba would say.

6. Don’t expect the kids to last too long. Know their limits, and send them to bed when they hit them. Nothing would disrupt your Jólabókaflóð more than a loud screeching fight about Lego property in another room.

7. After they go to bed, no one said you had to stop. Maybe set aside some time before for those “assembly required” toys. Minimize the stress of wrapping presents beforehand. Actually spend Christmas Eve enjoying Christmas Eve with books and warm drinks and cookies. Yeah, cookies. I prefer little cakes, but hey, if cookies are your thing, you do you, boo.

But in the end, Jólabókaflóð will be all about the books. That’s the Christmas Eve I want, the Christmas Eve I deserve after the holiday madness. You do, too. So make it happen. You can do it. Even if it’s just you and your significant other. Or you alone. Buy your own goddamn book. But however you do it, have yourself a merry little Jólabókaflóð.

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