You may have heard of Jolabokaflod (pronounced yola-boka-flowed), the Icelandic “Yule book flood” where friends and family give each other books on Christmas Eve, then spend the evening sipping cocoa and reading. Icelanders love books, and this tradition seems as satisfying to them as the commercial extravaganzas we see in the United States.

Here in the U.S., we have a different reading culture. In 2019, a survey showed that Icelanders read two or more books per month; in the U.S., it was about four per year. And 10 percent of Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.

The Jolabokaflod tradition, started in 1944, wasn’t entirely born of intellectual and cultural pursuit; commercial and supply chain issues played a major part. Due to WWII currency restrictions and rationing, paper was more available as a gift than other commodities. Jolabokaflod was born, and has remained a critical part of Iceland’s culture and European book sales.

Jolabokaflod became more visible in the U.S. in the past decade. Sound like an engaging alternative to the relentless shopping and expectation-laden events we see this time of the year? Then maybe 2021 will be the year you and your family and friends start your own Jolabokaflod tradition.

Jolabokaflod Catches On in U.S. Libraries

A few libraries use this Icelandic tradition to attract and inspire readership and community. This year, the Jacinto City Branch Library in Houston, TX is sponsoring an After School Jolabokaflod, where children can make a craft, unwrap a new book, drink hot chocolate, and exchange books–free of charge. The Coeur d’Alene Public Library in Idaho is in its second year of an annual book giveaway, where members of the community are invited to pick up a free gift-wrapped book.

A poster advertising Coeur d’Alene Library's Jólabókaflóð.
Learn more about this event here.

In Baltimore’s famed Enoch Pratt library system, the Edmonson Avenue Branch this December is giving away hot chocolate kits for two weeks as part of its Jolabokaflod celebration.

In 1882, Enoch Pratt donated $1 million (about $27 million today) to found a library that “shall be for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color, who, when properly accredited, can take out the books if they will handle them carefully and return them.” His hallmark downtown building seeded one of the first free library systems in the U.S. I grew up in Baltimore, and in winter we’d go to the Pratt library after school. With its high polished wood shelving and golden glowing chandeliers and lamps, it was an ideal setting to get lost in a book. Today it could be a charming setting for celebrating Jolabokaflod: work is done, darkness falls, and in warmth and quiet we sit separately but together, embarking on a journey to the unknown with a good book in our hands.

Sharing Books in Your Neighborhood

It may not be grand like Enoch Pratt’s main library, but the Little Free Library movement gives us the same opportunity to share the joy of reading. There are three within blocks of my house. I take a book, I leave a book, and so do my neighbors. It’s a sweet way to read that best-seller from two years ago or revisit a classic—and recycle at the same time.

A red little free library sits in front of a brick house. Through it's window you can see it's completely full of books.

No little library to donate to you on your street? Look at your own shelves. Wrap books that you enjoyed but won’t read again to give to a friend for Jolabokaflod. Or explore library book sales, garage sales, and flea markets for inexpensive books.

A close up of a bookshelf with a dozen books of all genres--like Gloria Steinem's My Life on the Road, Suketu Mehta's This Land is Our Land, Rolling Stone's biography of Johnny Cash, and more.

Books are always a great gift, so consider trying Jolabokaflod this year. Give a book to a friend, or bring a stack to the family gathering or white elephant gift exchange. On Christmas Eve, toast each other and your books with hot cocoa or chocolate martini, then relax into a little separate togetherness.