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The Icelandic Christmas tradition you’ll fall in love with

By December 18, 2021No Comments



As our second covid Christmas approaches, Cassie Delaney learns about an Icelandic tradition that sounds like the perfect silent night. 



Joyous as it may be, Christmas is the enemy of minimalism.

In the wise words of Cliff Richard, it’s a time for giving, a time for getting, and a time to enjoy the spoils of the hard year gone by excessive spending, drinking and eating. And hey, honestly I would usually be leading the pack, stockpiling Baileys and contemplating three variants of potato side dishes. But this year feels different.  

Last year we anticipated that the word of the year ought to be unprecedented for the sheer volume of times it was used in relation to the pandemic. This year the word is seldom ushered as it becomes more and more accepted that these times are in fact, very much precedented.

Our second covid Christmas. 

It means another year void of 12 pubs, Christmas parties, school friend meet-ups and midnight Christmas eve pints in the local (we’ve called them Santa Pints for the last 14 years). For me, it’s my younger brother’s third Christmas away from home,  and as many years without a visit thanks to Australia’s necessary travel bans over the last two years. My other brother is one of the unfortunate souls who tested positive for covid within the ten days leading to Christmas, leaving him, his girlfriend and their man child roommate stuck in London.

This Christmas calls for something different and instead of mourning the traditions of the years prior, I’m looking forward to exploring something new.  

The Icelandic tradition Jolabokaflod calls for a much quieter, somber Christmas. Celebrated on Christmas eve, it is a time when families and friends gift their nearest and dearest with a new book. Together they sit, sipping hot chocolate, reading late into the night.  

New books are often released in the months preceding Christmas and published in a catalogue called The Journal of Books which is distributed to each household for free. The release of the journal signifies the start of the holiday season.

Jolabokaflod,translates literally as the Christmas book flood, and dates back to 1944 when The Journal of Books was first circulated. It was a result of the post-war economy when Iceland faced a shortage of imports from other countries. Limitations on paper goods were not as restrictive, making books a common gift. The tradition has bred a nation of bibliophiles with 50% of the adult population reading an average of eight books a year. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’d sacrifice a life of Christmas dinners to have all my siblings under the same roof fighting over charades, but those days will come again. Right now we need to find comfort in smallness, take time to pause and believe that what we forfeit today will result in a fruitful tomorrow. 

And if a literal silent night of reading doesn’t appeal, here are some other international traditions that might inspire a new Christmas custom.  

Venezuelan roller skating

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, locals gather en masse to skate to church. The tradition is so popular that the roads are closed between the 16th and 24th of December to facilitate skating. During this time residents wake up early and gather at a plaza to skate together before prayer. 

The tradition, which dates back to the sixties, also requires children to place their shoes by the window with a rope dangling out. When the adults begin their early morning skate, they tug on the ropes alerting children to join them. 

The Day of Little Candles 

Celebrated in the lead up to Christmas, the Day of Little Candles is a widely observed tradition in Colombia. Originally intended to honour Mary, people place candles and paper lanterns on windowsills, balconies, porches, sidewalks, streets, parks and squares. 

Christmas decorations reach their peak on this day; and the streets are closed so families can walk around and admire the light displays. Often carolling events and live nativities take place and museums and public places extend their opening hours. 

Finland’s Declaration of Christmas Peace 

The declaration of Christmas Peace is a promise to behave in a respectful and peaceful manner at Christmas. It comes from old Swedish legislation created by Birger Jarl in the 13th century, extending the tradition of the Truce of God. 

Residents gather at noon on Christmas Eve at the Old Great Square of the former Finnish capital Turku, where the declaration has been read since the 1320s. The declaration lasts 20 days and during this period, criminal offenders can be served harsher sentences.  The current script dates back to 1903 and wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, free of noise and rowdy behaviour.