A literary tradition like no other

A literary tradition like no other

A few years back my family adopted a new tradition inspired by the Icelandic Jólabókaflóðið. While this literary tradition—roughly translated as “Christmas book flood”—originated for a reason, my family adopted (and adapted) it for a different one: Will and I wanted to build in some purposeful quiet-at-home time amidst the dashing we did between various extended family celebrations in the past.

As you can imagine, giving books was obviously nothing new in our household, but the idea of turning it into an event was. 

Here’s what we decided to do. Most years, we’re out of the house for most of Christmas Eve. But when we get home and are winding down we’ll light a fire and pass out one gift to everyone—a wrapped book and a special chocolate to go with it. After everyone opens their books, we get cozy and read by the fire while we sample our chocolate.

As a highly sensitive person, I sometimes feel like the Grinch complaining about the noise, noise, noise, noise of the holidays (both big family gatherings and the all-day excitement of kids off school). So our family book flood became a way to recruit my kids into willingly—and even excitedly—winding down Christmas Eve with a book, which is my preferred way to decompress. 

Of course the challenge has been picking the books! We need a book for each person—that’s two adults, and four kids ages 10-17—and really want it to be something they’ll unwrap and immediately want to start reading, even though each of us likely already has a book-in-progress. Will and I put a lot of thought into choosing books for this night. We love to give books they’re already inclined to read and love, like a new book in a beloved series, or one by a favorite author. But sometimes we surprise our more adventurous readers with books I know they’ve never heard of. (I can’t be more specific because our kids haven’t opened their books yet!)

Will and I also buy for each other. I don’t envy him the task of choosing books for me, but he’s done a great job in the past. (In fact, one of my favorite books of 2020 was last year’s book flood pick!)

The chocolate is much easier to find, thank goodness. For our family book flood, I look for something special that we only buy for special occasions like this. In the past we’ve given them Vosges (a family favorite after we visited their now-shuttered store in NYC), Green & Black’s, and Divine. Theo, Equal Exchange or Chuao are also good choices. Because we share the chocolate, I don’t hesitate to get special or even downright weird flavors—turmeric ginger, potato chip, mushroom, you name it! (This year, thanks to The Great British Baking Show, all my ten-year-old wants is ruby chocolate!)

Will and I keep an eye out for chocolates (and sample along the way) whenever we’re at a coffee shop or speciality food store. World Market and stores like Just Creations and Ten Thousand Villages are also good for something off the beaten path. Even our regular grocery store stocks all kinds of indulgent treats in their organic and whole food section.

This year has us all approaching the holidays differently and my family is looking at new rhythms and traditions. Fortunately, our family book flood is also perfect for 2020.

Do you have any literary traditions, holiday or otherwise? Tell us all about them in comments!

P.S. 15 gift ideas for kids who love to read, 15 re-readable middle grade novels that adults will love, too, and 11 book pairs that match your childhood favorites with what you should read now.

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57 comments

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  1. Natasha says:

    I took this idea, once I heard it years ago, and kind of put my own twist on it. Every year, everyone in our family gets visited by the Book Fairy, twice a year. Once on Yule, and on their birthday. They get a book, a personalized bookmark, and a set of personalized bookplates. And a little note from the Book Fairy about why that book was chosen for them. And to set it apart from the flood of gifts, the Book Fairy only wraps in plain kraft paper, and writes your name in crayon (she’s a fairy, did you expect calligraphy?) I’m planning on getting a Cricut one day, and that year, everyone *will* be getting personalized library bags. After reflection, I might start adding candy too.

  2. Ann Mcphee says:

    I can’t recall where I heard about John Kelly Chocolates but wrote the name by my daughters birth month to try this year. She loved them.

  3. Eileen says:

    When my kids were little (well really, it lasted thru HS I think), they always got to open 1 present on Christmas Eve after church. It was always new pajamas and a book. They were still excited every year. My kids aren’t big readers (as adults now), but I still get them a book every year that I think they might read, or might like on their shelf. I’ve given some accessible personal finance books too. 🙂

    We’re empty-nesters now, but I might suggest this as our own Christmas Eve tradition. I actually have a book for my husband this year, but since we’ll be w/o family (thanks pandemic) so the gift giving will be much briefer, I’ll save that for Christmas morning.

  4. Nancy Brown says:

    As our family has gotten older and larger with the addition of sons & daughters in law, gift giving became more daunting. We’ve adopted a book exchange that includes all adults who want to participate. It is simple and the activity itself is so much fun, that we all look forward to spending time together in the afternoon of Christmas Day after all the high energy of the morning. Everyone brings a favorite book wrapped. We take turns opening a book but then need to guess who it was that put the book in. When the giver is figured out, that person gives a review or “ad” letting everyone know why it is a top pick. Each person has the option to open a new book or steal one that has already been opened. You can make up your rules about how often a book can be stolen. When all is done, we mark each book with a special book plate for that years holiday exchange. I also prepare a book mark with the book titles and the winner. Throughout the year, we swap and talk about the books when we’re together. Even our children living away participate virtually.

    • Krystal Branom says:

      This is a brilliant idea and totally plan to add it to our family tradition when my kids are grown and have their own families! For now, while they are little (and all are reading) we just started doing the Christmas Eve books.

  5. Eve says:

    My husband and I went to Iceland at Christmas 5 years ago and since then we have adopted this tradition too! However we normally just give each other the books but don’t read them straight away as we are usually staying with my family and go out for drinks with everyone on Christmas Eve. This year we sadly won’t be seeing anyone and we are spending Christmas just the two of us, so we are making this year’s Jolabokaflod a much bigger deal! I’m planning to have a bath, get my PJs on then swap books and spend the evening reading them while nibbling on grazing platters. It will be very different to our normal Christmas Eve but I am looking forward to it!

  6. Sarah Williams says:

    Happy Solstice (a few days past) and Merry Christmas.
    My husband and I started the same Christmas Eve tradition a few years ago. Until this year, we always to family on Christmas. This was our way of enjoying a quiet celebration to balance the more boisterous Christmas gathering. We did add gifting each something cozy such as new pjs or such to the books and chocolate.

  7. Stacey Bieberitz says:

    I am the big reader in my family, so I have joined a Jolabokflod swap the last two years on Litsy. A book and chocolate is so simple and just for me on Christmas Eve. I can’t wait to open that☺️

  8. Cathi Warren says:

    I am loving the idea from yesterday’s podcast about Literary Christmas, and already planning to talk to my family about it for next year. We have nine kids, seven kids-in-law, and 28 grandkids, so this could be a monstrous undertaking. But we’re a family of readers, so I have no doubt that the amount of work involved would be more than worth it. I hope that idea motivated a lot of others as well!

  9. Emily says:

    We do this as well! Right after Thanksgiving, each family member draws a name and has a few weeks to buy the book for that particular person. Even though we have a couple who hate to read, they ALL look forward to this! I have been pleasantly surprised by the very thoughtful selections. Several don’t care for chocolate (horror!) and instead buy that person his or her favorite candy. On Christmas Eve, it is such a treat for all of us to jump in comfy Christmas pajamas and socks, eat our candy, drink hot tea, and read the book our loved ones picked for us. It is truly our favorite tradition!

  10. Linda says:

    I started the tradition of Santa bringing books and a doll or stuffed animal every year. As the girls have gotten older (now 27 and 28) we dropped the dolls but have kept the books — usually 3 apiece. They claim it is their favorite part of Christmas morning.

  11. Gwen says:

    Yes! I, too, adopted this tradition two years ago, after hearing about it. That line in the Grinch…the noise, noise, noise, NOISE! I sigh every time I hear it. I know how you feel, Grinch. So every Christmas Eve, my four kids (13-7), my husband, and I get to open a book, we make hot cocoa, light a fire, drag blankets to the living room by the fire, and read. It’s my idea of heaven. This year even my 7 year old is an independent reader, and has already asked to make sure they’re getting books.

  12. Diane C says:

    My mother in law collected copies of The Night Before Christmas. Every Christmas Eve, everyone would grab their favorite version and the family would read it together, comparing how different artists illustrated the famous poem. She has now passed away, but her many copies of Night Before Christmas have now joined our library and we continue her tradition.

  13. Jessica says:

    Little Women gave me our Christmas book tradition. I stick a book under everyone’s pillow on Christmas Eve morning so they can enjoy it throughout the day.

  14. Rose says:

    Oh, the noise! I so agree! Makes me wonder if my after-preset melancholy I remember always having growing up was because my introverted self was just so overwhelmed. I was thankful when our house became the Main Event spot so I could stay in my room for a while (too long by my parents’ standards, if their coming to find me was an indication) when we were told to bring our gifts to our rooms after opening them.
    My wife works in law enforcement and we’ve both agreed to her not taking Christmas off so that people who have children can if they wanted to. Our family isn’t local, so most years I’m alone Christmas Eve and Christmas for at least 8 hours. I’ve started the tradition of reading in bed Christmas morning with tea or hot chocolate (something never allowed in the bedroom normally), the curtains drawn back so I can see the sky brightening and changing. It is so relaxing, something I almost never do anymore (who has time to read in bed in the morning?!), and feels so indulgent. I’ll read until I get hungry and by then it’s usually a decent time to call family with holiday greetings. It’s usually a book I’m already in the middle of, but the slow pace is enough to make it special.
    I’m thankful I already have a tradition that all the restrictions this year can’t disrupt. We might have had to cancel our winter trip to see family but my bed, book, and kettle will be waiting Christmas morning.

  15. Dee says:

    I wanted to start a new tradition of reading A Christmas Carol out loud this year, but I don’t think it will happen. My son and husband are not readers (the horror!) and this really doesn’t appeal to them. 🙁

    • Rose says:

      Gretchen Ruben read The Christmas Carol on her podcast Happier. It’s broken into two parts. In case you want to listen by yourself =)

  16. Ash SP says:

    If you need a local-ish chocolate recommendation, Maverick Chocolate up in Cincinnati has delicious varieties. They have a store location at Findlay Market. We’ve since moved away but I still order their chocolate for my husband every year.

  17. Julia says:

    After reading about this Icelandic tradition for several years, 2020 seemed like the perfect year to give it a try and I’m so excited. Our Christmas Eve will look so different but I’m really looking forward to it because of Jólabókaflóðið! I have a book selected and wrapped along with chocolates, new PJs and slippers for each family member. It will be a perfect way to get cozy and warm up following our planned evening walk through neighborhood Christmas lights. Despite all the struggles and illness and heartache of 2020 intentionally choosing new, low key ways of spending time together has been a blessing. Christmas Eve will be one of those!

  18. Allyson says:

    I picked up a detective story set in Iceland (The Island) by an Icelandic author (Ragnar Jonasson) for my Jolabokaflod this year. Can’t wait. Hadn’t thought of pairing it with chocolate, but am on board for it.

    • Janet says:

      Thanks for the recommendation. I immediately checked out the ebook from my library. We really enjoyed the Icelandic series ‘Trapped’ on Netflix. Hoping to visit Iceland post pandemic.

  19. Alicia says:

    My grandpa was a full blooded Icelander and this was one of the traditions his family brought with them when they migrated. This has always been something my family did and I’ve continued with for my kids and nieces and nephews. I collect books all year and at our extended family Christmas party, the last thing, before leaving for the night is to choose a book and my mom provides the chocolate. This is also my gift giving tradition for friends. Love it!

  20. Susan says:

    So many great ideas in the comments. My youngest son is getting mostly books as is typical for him. I bought The 99% Invisible City for my oldest son after seeing it mentioned on your blog. Just hope I get a book for Christmas.

  21. Sam says:

    My husband and I exchange two of our favorite books of the year on Christmas. I love the idea of moving the exchange to Christmas Eve after our toddler has gone to bed and making it a relaxing event!

  22. Shan says:

    I started the tradition of Book Fairy about 10 years ago. I pass along books to my extended family (usually about 15-20 people) from the Book Fairy. The book fairy is a bit of a book bully because you get a book whether you’re a reader or not!
    The best was when I overheard my 6 year old great-nephew saying to my daughter “Wait a minute! Your mom is the Book Fairy??” I’m right up there with Santa!

  23. Megan says:

    This year, we started a new tradition with our children. Typically, our Elf on the Shelf brings the kids a chocolate advent calendar when he arrives. This year an aunt gave them a chocolate advent calendar, so our elf brought a new tradition. He rounded up 24 books with a winter, holiday or Christmas theme and had the audacity to use my wrapping paper to wrap them all up individually (which my 5,6 & 8 year old thought was hilarious.) Each night, the kids take turns unwrapping one and we read it before bedtime. This will culminate on Christmas Eve with “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” (Our elf wrote a big “24” on the paper so they knew to wait.)
    It was a lot of work on the front end, but they love it. I think that we will continue to do this next year

  24. KTC says:

    I might try to persuade my husband to do this! Growing up, my father (who has a rich, deep voice) would always read us Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”—usually on Christmas Eve. I have such great memories of all of us curled up in blankets (even as teens or young adults!) swept away by the beautiful writing. “When I was a boy… When there were wolves in Wales…”

  25. Betsy says:

    We’ve done this for years, too! The kids get to stay up as late as they want, reading their books and, they’re favorite part: they don’t have to brush their teeth! The kids also sleep out by the tree. We’re going on year 5, I think!

  26. Robin Walker says:

    Every year our kids all woke up Christmas morning to find their book-gift by their bed. This was especially great when they woke up at 5 am! They were allowed to open their gift book and stay in bed and read until called to come downstairs for festivities to begin.

  27. I’ve heard of the Icelandic book flood and always thought it sounded wonderful… but oh my, I never thought about how difficult it would be to CHOOSE the books! You’re right, it must be a real task to find something for everyone that they’ll all want to enjoy immediately. Hope it goes off without a hitch this year (reading is a very COVID-safe activity, after all, one of the few respites from this year…).

  28. Jenny Preston says:

    We are doing the Book Flood for the first time this year! We’ve always, always exchanged books but I’m excited to split them off from the crazy of Christmas morning to start a more peaceful tradition and make the reading all the more special. I’ve planned a snack tray and hot chocolate with special add-ins. After church we’ll all snuggle in for books and snacks by candlelight and Christmas tree lights. I think my kids (9 and 5 and both enthusiastic readers) are more excited by Book Flood than Christmas morning! May have as much to do with the abundance of sugar and the promise of no bedtime as the actual books though 😉

  29. Jennifer says:

    We love Vosges also. It is a Chicago business and is widely available here. I like to give my 4 kids special chocolate and often choose Chocolove for the poem inside the wrapper. Thanks for all the inspiration!

  30. Heather Olson says:

    My small town has hosted a jolabokaflod annually for the past few years. At a coffee or kombucha (this year) shop, people bring an unwrapped book and a chocolate and take a book and chocolate. It’s a fun way to give a stranger a gift and pick one out for yourself. I’ve picked up some great reads-An American Marriage, A Gentleman in Moscow, etc.

  31. Sam says:

    Wow, I’m so jealous! The family all reading quietly together: I have no idea what that’s like. LoL I’m the only reader, and my family LOVES to talk.. and talk, and talk. The only way I’m able to read (or do ANYthing that requires concentration) is to go off by myself into a separate room and shut the door. This ability to be alone together sounds so lovely…but with some families it’s literally not possible. Consider yourself lucky!! 🙂

  32. Mary M says:

    We do the same, but everyone gets a classic and the graphic novel version of that classic (like Green Gables for my daughter and The Giver for my husband). I found its a great way for my 8 yo to get excited about “harder” books. My nonreader gets a wordless picture book that she can read by herself while we dig into our own books

  33. Rachel says:

    We moved to Paris our second year of marriage. Books in English were expensive and we were worried about moving a bunch back to the US one day so I had to practice a lot of restraint! We relied on Kindle and online library borrowing services. BUT every year on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day, we’d visit Shakespeare in Company, right next to Notre Dame, and pick out a new book. And Christmas was always a crazy busy season for us (we were in ministry) but the first day we had to ourselves we would spend reading and snacking on Christmas leftovers. This our first Christmas back in the US, but we’ve found a wonderful local bookstore and plan to continue the tradition. Now if only our two year old would let us spend a day reading. 😉

  34. Jaclyn says:
  35. Brooke says:

    As a book lover I’ve tried this two years in a row. I spend Christmas with my boyfriend’s non reading family and this has never gone over well. It’s so sad I cannot share the joy of reading with them. It’s life pulling teeth when I tell them is like books for Christmas too. Maybe I’ll join a Christmas book swap next year.

  36. Sharron says:

    Thank you so much for sharing about the chocolate! We’ve been doing the Christmas Eve book gifts for a couple of years, but the chocolate will make it much more exciting for my non-reading daughter who gets a book anyway! LoL

  37. DeAnn H. says:

    Last evening I took an impromptu ‘book flood’ to Christmas eve dinner with our friends’ family: there were 3 generations present and children from 1-17. I looted my library of really good reads for all ages, and all but maybe one teenage boy took a book. They included ‘Endurance’ by Alfred Lansing, ‘Last Flight of Whiskey Mike’, a thriller ably-written by Ken Bartholomew, my husband’s family doctor; ‘God’s Chaos Code’ by Lance Wallnau, ‘Incident at Hawk’s Hill’, by Allan W. Eckert, ‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks, ‘The Elephant’s Child’ by Rudyard Kipling, ‘Lioness Arising’ by Lisa Bevere, ‘A is for Angry’ by Sandra Boynton, ‘Firefly Hollow’ by Alison McGhee, ‘Turtles all the Way Down’ and ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ by John Green (they were pounced upon by one of the teenage girls, who convinced her sister to take the one the first had already read), and some others that I don’t remember, including a Dr. Suess book. (I photographed the books I will want to replace in my library, since this was so impromptu.) Everyone seemed to love the idea, and took time to admire and select books. (One young Mom had purchased “Incident at Hawk’s Hill’ for herself after reading it in college.) I expect to have chances to discuss books with them now, as a wonderful side-benefit!

  38. Biz says:

    Moonstruck and Cowgirl Chocolates (spicy dark truffles, enough said!) are two of my favorites. Anne, next time you’re in the Cincinnati area, you should visit Maverick Chocolates–they’re close to Joseph-Beth Books.

  39. Debby Daniels says:

    My husband receives gifts from each of our beloved family dogs (6 now gone and a new one present……..) every year on Christmas morning. They always are books and always historical or biographical in nature. So yesterday seven books were opened. Now he has to decide which book to read first. The only downside is when my husband finds a particularly interesting tidbit and reads it aloud to me. I pretend to be interested:). I mean…how many books can there be about Alexander Hamilton? Fortunately, the dogs keep track of books discussed on NPR throughout the year and take notes with their paws. They get their orders sent in December…… When I retire in June, I will stop reading professional journals and start reading some of the books that you recommend. Merry Christmas.

    • Ruth O says:

      Love all the ideas for book-gifting, wishing I had done that when our daughters were all still home!
      And I totally understand when hubby reads tidbits from the current book (when he reads one, which isn’t often)!
      And Anne, the reader above who’s boyfriend’s family doesn’t like to read sounds like a topic for a future post or podcast…Of course some things are not meant for us to try to change, but it’s sad to imagine not reading.

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