All around the world winter is synonymous with colder, darker times. Iceland, a country roughly the size of Ohio, receives a meager 5 hours of daylight throughout the month of December due to the country’s high latitude. The country is quite literally enveloped in darkness, especially compared to the abundance of sunlight (nearly 22 hours per day) that it receives in the summer.
One of Iceland’s most beautiful traditions was born out of one of their darkest and most historically hopeless times.
It was World War II in Iceland, just a few years before the country gained complete independence from Denmark in 1944. Certain items, such as bacon, cheese, milk, and clothing, were rationed in Iceland, whereas restrictions on other items, like paper, were more lenient. This allowed for an abundance of publications, subsequently inspiring the Icelandic tradition known as Jólabókaflóð (yo-la-bok-a-flot), or “Christmas Book Flood.”
Jólabókaflóð is the annual retail cycle, from the releasing of new books in the few months leading up to Christmas, to the reading of those books on Christmas Eve.
In an interview with NPR, Kristjan B. Jonasson, president of the Iceland Publishers Association, refers to Jólabókaflóð as “the backbone of the publishing sector in Iceland."
Every year since 1944, new releases are marketed in the highly anticipated Bókatíðindi, or “Book Bulletin,” and sent to every Icelandic household free of charge. Icelanders pour over the pages of the catalogue, circle their favorites, and research which books they will gift their loved ones on Christmas Eve.
From the disheartening days of WWII to the darkest days of December, books have become a sign of hope, brightness, and resilience for Icelanders. An unforgettable picture book called The Christmas Book Flood written by Emily Kilgore with pictures by Kitty Moss was published this year. The story recounts the tradition of Jólabókaflóð, which celebrates the magic of books and inspires a love of reading.
The illustrations in The Christmas Book Flood are a mix of collage, watercolor, digital illustration, and gouache (gwash)—a slightly more opaque version of watercolor—that merge to create a surreal, dreamlike experience.
While there are other cultures that gift books on Christmas Eve, Iceland is an anomaly regarding the number of people gifting them and what they do after opening them: with a bar of chocolate or mug of hot chocolate they snuggle in and read, read, read. All night long.
In The Christmas Book Flood darkness is seen as an opportunity to explore the delightfulness of night. The evening, and the long hours of darkness that accompany it, are an invitation to discover beauty and wonder. This comes as a pleasant surprise in contrast to the far-too-common disposition of equating darkness with fear and danger. In this book, we are invited to step outside and marvel at the northern lights or stay inside and become lost in the thrill of a story.
Holiday book traditions like Jólabókaflóð remind us that books are one of the best gifts we can give. A story, unlike the toys or clothing we often receive, has the potential to stick with us, influence us, and become part of us for a lifetime. A story brings hope, laughter, and brightness. It inspires, comforts, and imparts meaning.
The Christmas Book Flood continues to spread across cultures, countries, and into the homes of anyone wishing to experience the magic of finding, gifting, and reading the perfect story with loved ones on one of the most celebrated and cherished nights of the year. Will Jólabókaflóð make its way into your home this year, too?