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The Irish For Jolabokaflod - a look at Iceland's Christmas books tradition

Darach Ó Séaghdha looks at how people in Iceland focus on books over the holiday season.

YOU MAY HAVE seen some posts on social media recently about a lovely-sounding annual tradition: Jólabókaflóð, Iceland’s “Yule Book Flood”.

Every year on Christmas Eve, we are told, Icelanders turn off their tellies and their Xboxes, put their pesky mobile phones away, and give each other books as gifts.

Then they cuddle up with big mugs of hot chocolate and read together, with no sounds to be heard except the roaring of a fireplace, the occasional sensible chuckle, and the contented turning of pages. Could such a tradition ever be introduced in Ireland, they ask?

Jolabokaflod is a relatively recent tradition in Iceland, originating in World War II when importing toys (or the materials to make toys) was out of the question, and children had to make do with books instead. Responding to this trend, the publishing industry in Iceland created an annual Bókatíðindi (the “book bulletin” a bit like the Christmas edition of the RTÉ Guide) to make it easier for readers to decide what they wanted to give and to receive.

Native language

The Book Flood was also helped by Iceland’s policy of supporting its native language, and it is no accident that the first Bókatíðindi was released in 1944, the same year that Iceland became a republic.

The journal promotes books in Icelandic, published in Iceland, for Icelanders. Icelandic publishers can claim 25% of the production costs of books in the native tongue back from the Department of Culture and Commerce there. The Icelandic national book sector has another secret weapon: Amazon does not currently ship there.

It would be hard to replicate these circumstances in Ireland, and there is a strong argument that we shouldn’t even bother. Jolabokaflod may be a victim of its own success. Just as the Irish new car market before 2013 used to be artificially busy in January and relatively quiet for the rest of the year, the Icelandic publishing calendar leans heavily into December.

An Irish version?

This makes promotion a nightmare for less-established authors – there are only so many radio slots for interviews or column inches for reviews – and large amounts of unsold books getting pulped in the new year as storage of stock becomes a serious logistical problem.

This is especially frustrating for publishers who have incurred the extra printing costs of making their product “gift standard” as books are marketed to the giver rather than the end-reader.

The truth is that you can turn off your telly and curl up with a book any night of the year, and thankfully, lots of Irish people will be giving and getting books for Christmas even without an organised fun campaign. But it does sound very indulgent and tranquil (Icelanders, as former subjects of the Kingdom of Denmark, would probably not appreciate it being described as hygge), so is there a way that we can replicate this without creating unpleasant side effects in the bookselling sector?

One thing you could do is start a new tradition of a December visit to the library, especially if you have not been there for a while. A library card just might be the perfect Christmas gift to yourself – and it’s free.

As well as being one of the only places where you can sit down without someone asking you to pay over some money, libraries support the sector by buying lots of books (and pay authors when their books are borrowed) and the inter-library loan service means that the range of choices is almost limitless.

And while your local library might be closed during the quiet days in between Christmas and New Year, the online services for library cardholders will be available – Borrowbox, Libby, the Newspaper Archives (which are great fun to check during State Papers Week) and much more.

Nollag shona daoibh, or as they say in Icelandic, gleðileg jól!

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