There’s a longstanding tradition in Iceland of giving books as Christmas presents – each and every Icelander typically receives at least one book under the tree each year. After opening the presents on Christmas Eve, many people revel in the thought of crawling in between the covers with something new to read.
A wonderful tradition indeed.
It’s hardly surprising that Icelanders have a deep appreciation of the written word. During the dark, harsh winters, people spent most of their time indoors and the tradition for a kvoldvaka came about.
This was basically a storytelling session in the communal living area, to keep people awake and entertained while they did their “winter work” – spinning wool, knitting, making tools and so on. Someone would read from a book, people would tell stories, or recite poetry. Sometimes verses would be made up on the spot, with someone making up one line, someone else having to contribute the next line, and so on. During those long winter evenings, the kvoldvaka was an essential part of keeping people spiritually alive.
The kvoldvaka was also where the education of children took place. They were taught to read and write, and learned about history and geography through the telling and re-telling of the Sagas and other stories. Even though the nation was alarmingly poor, almost everyone could read and write.
Icelanders had a strange compulsion to record the events around them too. The National and University Library has a section in which centuries-old journals and diaries are kept. Anyone can read those journals, in which regular Icelanders recorded aspects of their day-to-day lives, and which contain lines like this one, taken from an actual diary: “There is frost outside, yet it is calm. My daughter died last night.”
And so, books to Icelanders are far more than mere entertainment. They are an intrinsic part of the national identity.