Christmas book flood

An Icelandic tradition worth importing


Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
Both books in Icelandic and books in English, like those on the right, sell well at Jólabokakaffi∂.

Elizabeth Bourne

Jólabókafló∂ is Iceland’s most loved Christmas tradition. Compared to some of Iceland’s other Christmas customs—child-eating cats, fermented skate, and the criminal 13 Yule Lads—a Christmas book flood sounds hot-chocolate-sweet and cozy. Every Icelander I spoke with about the Jólabókafló∂ grew misty-eyed recalling their memories of receiving a new book on Christmas Eve. Some smiled as they talked about racing off to bed to read it under the covers with a flashlight. Others had a family tradition of staying together in the living room reading their books with hot drinks and kaka og smákökur (cake and cookies).

Iceland is famous for its literary tradition, which reaches back a thousand years to the Settlement Days and stories told in smoky longhouses of great and terrible deeds. Even today, Icelanders feel passionately enough about these saga characters, Icelandic superheroes really, that they are willing to argue the relative qualities of Egil the warrior-poet compared to Njal the law man, or the tragic Gisli. A walk through modern Reykjavik shows civic sculptures of famous poets and writers; the kind of public art other countries erect to their generals and war heroes.

So it isn’t surprising that this country would celebrate books. But I wondered about the event’s origin, and I was fortunate to find someone who could tell me all about Iceland’s history, Bjarni Har∂arson. Together with his wife, Élin Gunnlaugsdôttir who is a noted Icelandic composer, Bjarni and Élin own Bokakaffi∂, a new and used bookstore in the town of Selfoss in southern Iceland. Bjarni also runs Sæmundur Publishing House, which puts out about 30 titles a year, and is known for his historical novels set in Iceland and books on Icelandic folklore.


Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
Bjarni Har∂arson and his wife Élin Gunnlaugsdôttir, who is a noted Icelandic composer, own Bokakaffi∂, a new and used bookstore in the town of Selfoss in southern Iceland.

I had coffee with Bjarni at Bokakaffi∂, where he told me, “In order to understand modern Iceland you have to understand that until recently, less than 100 years ago, most Icelanders lived in extreme poverty and isolation. Telling each other tales and reading was the only entertainment. We wrote letters and diaries and stories and shared them with other hamlets and farms. It was a way of creating social connections because traveling was hard. There weren’t roads like there are now. Most travel was done walking or on horseback.

“There was some progress after WWI. Our great writer, Haldór Laxness, wrote about those times and won the Nobel Prize for it. So things were getting better. But it changed dramatically for Iceland after WWII. We call it the blessed war because to us, it was the start of real prosperity. For the first time, the average Icelander had a little spending money in his pocket. This was due to the soldiers who were stationed in Iceland, and to economic recovery payments Iceland received after the war. We suddenly felt rich. And it expressed itself in a new excitement over gift-giving at Christmas.

“However, the government wanted all that foreign money to stay in Iceland, and other than fishing, there weren’t many other Icelandic businesses. But there were no tariffs on paper, which made it possible for publishers to make and sell books at a good price. All Icelanders loved reading, so books as gifts became a big Christmas tradition, but it didn’t start until after the war, when we could afford it.”


Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
Used and rare books.

I asked Bjarni if Icelanders still participated in this tradition. He said, “Oh yes. In November and December we will sell as many books as we sell during the rest of the year. On the two days before Christmas we will stay open 12, 14 hours a day and sell as many books in one day as we would in an entire month. Sæmundur will re-release all its books in these two months. The publishing industry sends a booklet to Icelanders telling them about their books so they can choose what to buy as gifts.” Bjarni gave me a copy of the booklet he puts out for Sæmundur, a beautifully printed edition listing his releases, complete with synopsis and a small writing sample. I thought how wonderful it would be to get this kind of information about local books at home in Seattle.

Unlike many U.S. booksellers, Bjarni is not gloomy about the future of books. “We just expanded into English books this year, and those are selling very well to tourists. We do author evenings to promote books. We work with other small bookstores to bring writers on books tours in Iceland. Now, in addition to advertising in Icelandic venues, I also advertise on Google and Facebook, and that has helped sales.”

This Christmas I think I’ll create my own jólabókafló∂. Just think how nice it will be to get together with friends and family to exchange books, have a smørgåsbord of smoked lamb, gjetost, and cookies, and then settle down to a night of reading together. That’s a Christmas tradition worth importing.

This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.