In Iceland, a tradition exists in which books are given as gifts on Christmas Eve and everyone spends the evening reading. Since I learned about this, Christmases in my house haven't been the same.
The tradition of giving and receiving books at Christmas is so prevalent in Iceland that it drives the publishing industry. The market is flooded with books so that there will be plenty of titles from which to choose—hence the name Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood.”
Instead of the masses getting up at two in the morning the day after Thanksgiving to rush out to the mall for a stressful day of shoving through throngs of shoppers desperate for a deal on a laptop or big screen, Icelanders watch their mailboxes for a catalog of newly published books, which is sent to every household by the Icelandic Publishers Association. The giddiness they feel when perusing this catalog must be akin to what I felt as a kid when marking up the Sears catalog with all the things I hoped to receive for Christmas.
I love the idea of carefully selecting a book for someone special to open on Christmas Eve and for him or her to share it with me and the others gathered. What a wonderful way to become exposed to new literary works and genres and to learn something about the people with whom I share my holidays and my life. I decided to start a new tradition inspired by the passionate readers of Iceland.
I brought up the idea to my family and they were all agreeable, if not a little reluctant. After all, what about other presents? It took a little convincing, but It’s a great way to give and receive gifts without feeling obligated to purchase a gift for everyone in a large group, or to have to come up with ideas for gifts that you don’t really need or want, contributing to the disgusting over-consumerism that is so prevalent in this country. Of course, if you have little ones, this may not go over very well. My daughter (who is actually an adult) still receives other gifts since she is the “baby.” In addition to buying a book, we put a little something extra in each person's stocking in lieu of the big gift we used to buy. Your family can craft the tradition in whatever way works for you.
For our book exchange, the guidelines are as follows:
Choose three books that you would like to receive
Put your choices on a form and bring it to Thanksgiving
Draw someone else’s form at Thanksgiving
Buy one of the other person’s books and wrap it
Exchange books at Christmas
Say a few words about the book you receive
Read a passage from the book you receive aloud
This will be our third Jolabokaflod (pronounced Yo-la-bock-a-flot) and I'm looking
forward to many years of giving and receiving books.
The first year I received Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor, which I asked for because I loved The Sisters Brothers so much. Last year, I received Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, because I am one—an introvert, that is.
I’m still working on my list for this year. I’m pretty sure it will include Peace Weavers: Uniting the Salish Coast Through Cross-Cultural Marriages, recently published by WSU press, because this is the topic that inspired the idea for the novel I’m writing and I always like to learn more about the subject.
Next, perhaps Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, because everyone seems to be talking about it.
And to round out my list, I may choose From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty, because death and the rituals around it are fascinating and because her first novel Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory was delightful.
At first it was odd to sit around talking about books and reading aloud. It’s so contrary to the way my family normally interacts. But there is something very peaceful about turning off the TV, putting away the cell phone, and doing nothing but focusing on someone’s words and listening to them read, next to the Christmas tree, with its lights twinkling, and perhaps enjoying the glow of a crackling fire in the fireplace while sipping a glass of wine.
If you would you like to establish this lovely tradition in your family, feel free to use the form I created or make your own. Call your family and tell them to have their three book choices ready before your Thanksgiving gathering. Good luck, happy holidays, and happy reading!