Here’s a fun fact about Iceland: loads of the country’s population believe that invisible elves and trolls are real. Another fact: there is no McDonald’s in Iceland. One last one: there is an Icelandic tradition called ’Jólabókaflóð’ and I am extremely into it.
Roughly translating to English as ‘Christmas book flood’, natives unwrap all their presents on Christmas Eve and sit there in warm silence and read the books they have been given right away, usually while drinking hot chocolate or an alcohol-free Christmas ale called ‘jólabland’ (which is essentially just a cocktail of Fanta and Guinness). That sounds fucking brilliant, doesn’t it, besides the cocktail, which sounds like something you’d have to drink as a forfeit at your local rugby club.
Tucking into your new book, hot choc on the go, scarfing a lovely pot of Skyr, a little bit of rugbrod for dipping, your sheepdog Aldavinur gnawing a bone at your feet, the fire going, crackling away, absolutely no twat in the room talking to you at all.
The book trade on the island is pretty great: not counting the literally millions of obnoxious American tourists, 50% of the population will read at least eight books per year, and, according to BBC Magazine, one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their life.
Books are basically a national sport, and jólabókaflóð is its Cup Final. The reasoning behind the custom is pretty sound, from my interpretation of it, anyway: Icelanders love talking about books almost as much as they like reading them, which means that the family members who’ve bought you a book for Christmas have given you the greatest gift of all: something to talk about at Christmas.
At ours over the holiday season, me and my dad mostly exchange one word questions and answers until he starts talking about High Noon or Zulu and I drift off into a middle-distance silence that’s a little bit like death or when you put a television on standby. I start hearing him coming out of it (“…and then, at the end, when Richard Burton starts talking about Victoria Cross for the defence of Rorke’s Drift, Sam, I swear to god, I get a little bit emotional”) and I start to come back round, eyes refocusing, ready to trade yes and nos for the next few hours. In Iceland, though, ooh boy: conversation starters abound:
Did you like the book?
What did you like about the book?
Did you like this specific bit of the book?
Didn’t you think that one character in the book – you know the one I mean, the… yeah, him. That guy. The one with all the shit on his face – was great?
Why didn’t you like the book?
Why do you never appreciate anything I buy you?
I’m leaving you, Ólafur, and you don’t even care, do you?
So many things to talk about, all built in to the beautiful Christmas tradition of sitting quietly in a warm room and reading a book until your eyes start to hurt. I think there’s a lot we can learn from this tiny island. I think it starts here.