Christmas Book Flood
A few years ago I read about a Christmas practice in Iceland called Jolabokaflod, or Christmas book flood.
Iceland separated from Denmark in 1918 and did not become a fully autonomous republic until 1944. During the Great Depression Iceland enacted an intricate system of import restrictions. Many of those policies continued even after the Second World War. High inflation and strict rationing made it challenging for people in Iceland to buy most imported goods.
The one imported product which was relatively easy to get was paper.
Books became many people’s first choice for gifts and have remained so to today.
Iceland has one of the highest per capita literacy rates in the world, and one of the highest per capita book publishing rates. Each year in the months before Christmas publishers flood bookstores with their new titles. Most hardcover books published in Iceland become available in the months leading up to Christmas.
The book flood begins each year with the release of Bokatidindi, a catalog of newly published books. It is distributed free by the Iceland Publishers’ Association to every home in Iceland.
All of this may be interesting information, but it is not what caught my attention.
Most people in Iceland unwrap a book on Christmas Eve, December 24. Some people purchase a book for every member of their family, while others do an exchange. Each person brings a book to give and gets to pick one from the pile. Everyone ends up with a new title to explore.
After the exchanges everyone settles in, most often in bed, with their new book and some chocolate.
Later, at many Christmas parties, conversation centers on the new books everyone is reading.
It took us a year or two, but we began practicing Jolabokaflod a year ago.
Starting a Christmas Book Flood
It did not take much convincing for us to start preparing to practice a Christmas book flood of our own. Books have been among my favorite gifts to give and to receive for as long as I can remember.
Who would not welcome another reason to go to bed and read books?
Part of our preparation was selecting the right books to read and the best chocolate accompaniment. We shopped together, researching which would be the right books to initiate our new practice.
Should we read books about Christmas? What about focusing on recently published books, following Icelandic tradition?
Hot cocoa or chocolate which is nice and crunchy?
Our next step was deciding on a starting time. We wanted to protect our schedules from competing demands. It can be surprising how many things there are to do on the night before Christmas.
We tried to take every opportunity we could to share what we were doing with other people. When anyone invited us to do something else we explained where we would be. We welcomed people’s questions as ways we could anticipate and prepare for our own personal book flood.
The shortness of daylight hours on Christmas Eve made it easier for us to start earlier.
We tried to approach our first Christmas book flood in a contemplative way. There are few rules to follow or expectations to meet. We let Icelandic traditions inform us while trying not to let them get in the way.
We read and talked and listened to sacred stillness. Eventually we fell asleep and awoke to Christmas Day.
Lessons of a First Christmas Book Flood
We began a new annual practice with our first Christmas book flood last year.
Our first Christmas book flood was a gentler way of welcoming Christmas. Much of our preparation was about letting go and escaping our own expectations.
We experienced our book flood as a more contemplative way to spend Christmas Eve. Our primary responsibility was avoiding other ways to spend the evening.
Our Christmas book flood was not about the content of what we were reading. We were not studying or reading to acquire information. The reading we did was a method to relax and allow our minds to slow down. It was a vehicle toward enjoyment, and the chocolate also helped.
We realized we were not being pushed to consider anything or to analyze what we were doing. An evening of reading gave our hearts and minds an opportunity to allow Christmas Eve to happen.
There was no arbitrary pressure to accomplish anything or to experience particular feelings. We did not need to try to force ourselves into the Christmas Spirit; it was all around us and within us. Our practice is more about making room for the Christmas Spirit we know is with us.
Our Next Christmas Book Flood
We anticipate continuing our practice in a few days. Our books are chosen and we are deciding which chocolate we would like to taste.
It has felt a little easier to protect our Christmas Eve as we repeat our practice. Our experience from last year shapes our expectations.
We have also been thinking about ways to strengthen and develop our practice. There are other holidays we would like to try celebrating with a book flood. We have been thinking about practicing a regular book flood which is not dependent on a specific holiday. Our practice could develop into a quarterly book flood.
A Christmas book flood is a welcoming experience. You might want to take a step in a contemplative direction and try a book flood of your own. There are only a few purchases and little assembly required.
Our Christmas book flood welcomes us into a new practice and is how we choose to welcome Christmas.
How would you practice a Christmas book flood? What would be most challenging for you? What would you most welcome?
Are there contemplative ways to celebrate the holidays you would like to practice, like a Christmas book flood?
[Image by quinn.anya]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and university professor, and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com, and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.