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Iceland's answer to long nights is sharing stories – let's follow their lead in the Highlands

By Barbara Henderson

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Fed up with the long nights and the short days? Is the constant darkness getting you down?

Spare a thought for the people of Iceland who barely get four hours of daylight right now! I was lucky enough to visit last year, but it was midsummer then and the sun barely dipped below the horizon at all.

What’s it like to live in a country like that, I wondered. How do you get through the winter?

The answer to that? Stories.

We’re talking about the land of the Sagas after all, and Iceland is a country of avid readers. According to the BBC, “This island nation of just over 300,000 people has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world”.


Statistically, one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in his or her lifetime.

We would do well to look to Iceland at this festive time in particular. If you’re a booky sort of person – and by the fact that you are reading this column, I confidently predict you are – you’ll have heard of the Icelandic custom of Jolabokaflod, which translates roughly to "Christmas book flood" in English.

It involves exchanging books on Christmas Eve and then spending the rest of the evening reading and drinking cocoa. The tradition started during World War II, when paper was one of the few things not rationed in the small country.

It is becoming a cultural phenomenon which is attractive to anyone who can think of nothing better than curling up under a duvet with a hot water bottle and a book! I absolutely, utterly fall into that category – what about you?

This led me thinking though – what do we do, as readers and writers in our dark and dank winter world?

Predictably, my mind drew a blank which is why I took to Twitter. “Prepping for writing the festive ArtyNess column. What does a booky Christmas look like? How can we enter the festive spirit with bookish good deeds?”

I was wholly unprepared for what happened next.

I should have known that intrepid writer and Lyme disease campaigner Morven May McCallum would come up with the goods. “Maybe all of us local authors should hide one of our books in different locations with a little message asking the person to share a picture,” she suggested, “and once they’ve read it, they can hide it somewhere again for next Christmas?”

I retweeted, suggesting the hashtag #bookfoundxmas and many shared, tagged others and spread the word. Now it looks like on Christmas Eve, authors around Scotland and even abroad will hide one of their books for a complete stranger to find and enjoy.

Isn’t that amazing? Our very own festive book tradition! I’m telling you, keep an eye out, because this is set to happen from the farthest of the far north to the Central Belt, and certainly throughout the whole Highland News & Media area.

Forget Santa, look for the shifty-looking author-type, dodging the crowds and surreptitiously placing a wrapped, book-shaped parcel on a bench, or at the foot of an escalator, or leaning against a statue or beneath a shop-front.

Seen one? Make sure that you’re the first to get to it, and then you too can spread the festive cheer next year, joining in the book-hiding fun.

I can see this take off, I really can. In 10 or 20 years when everyone makes reference to the new Scottish craze of secret book-giving, you can say: “Well it all started in the Highlands…”

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