There’s a long-held Christmas tradition in Iceland of giving books – real, physical books – on Christmas Eve and staying up most of the night reading them. This beautiful tradition is part of the country’s Jolabokaflod, or “Yule Book Flood,” the end-of-the-year rush to buy, give, and read books.
It turns out that this small Nordic island nation, with a total population of just over 338,000 people, is inordinately literary. Icelanders love to read and write. Iceland “has more writers, more books published, and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world,” according to the BBC.
I thought of Iceland’s enviable Christmas book tradition this past Wednesday, when here, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I’m in the process of living happily-ever-after, like some character from a children’s book, we teachers at the after-school program where I volunteer, gave books to the children attending our last class for the year. Each child was able to choose two books for themselves, plus an extra book to give as a Christmas gift to a friend, out of three large bins of children’s books provided by the school’s director, Linda Curran.
I, too, was able to choose some books to give to the young children of the caretaker at the apartment complex where I live.
No sugary candy canes, no breakable plastic toys, these book-gifts, or the stories within them, will likely be indelibly engraved in the children’s minds for the rest of their lives. And, with luck, these Mexican kids will grow up to be book-lovers too.
As for me, I have a fresh stack of large-print books from San Miguel’s beloved Biblioteca on my bedside table to take me through the holidays. My personal Christmas tradition for some time now has been to stay in bed with a book, in my comfy flannel pj’s, all day on December 25th – reading and drinking sweet, milky, hot chai. This, to me, is luxury. Enviable. Bliss.
As always, I’ll pretend that my bed is a long beach chair beneath a wide umbrella stuck into a soft sandy beach somewhere far away. I’ll dive into my book (the books I’ve chosen to dive into this Christmas season are: Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist; Diane Ackerman’s WWII story, The Zookeeper’s Wife; and Anna Quindlen’s memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake), and I’ll be whisked “lands away.”
Some of us in the so-called “Christian” world – a minority, to be sure – simply don’t fit into the ho-ho-ho, jingle-bell-y, merry/happy mold at this time of year. No matter how hard we try. We’ve learned the hard way that we’re no good at faking it. We know we’re no fun to be with. So, without a prescription for happy pills or a chilled jeroboam of merry-making bubbly, I for one know I’m better off with books.
American pastor, author, and activist John Pavlovitz, who has a widely read blog, “Stuff that Need to be Said,” addressed this Christmas-outlier-minority in his Christmas Eve post of last year, titled “To Those Who Struggle This Christmas.” This group of strugglers includes, of course, those who are heavy-hearted in this heavily freighted holiday season — those who are doing their best to cope with loss, for example, or alienation, illness, or pain, but are unable to live up to others’ expectations of merriment. If you, like me, are one of them, I’d urge you to read John’s post (www.johnpavlovitz.com ).
And I’d urge you, too, to dive into a good book (or two). And let it take you to a better place, “lands away.” Maybe as far as Iceland! In the words of my favorite American poet, Emily Dickinson:
There is no frigate like a book
to take us lands away
Nor any coursers like a page
of prancing poetry
This traverse may the poorest take
without oppress of toll
How frugal is the chariot
that bears the human soul.