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Discovering Christmas Traditions from Around the World Through Literature

By Oisin Harris, Alice Reynolds and Toby Smollett

With the festive season now upon us, our minds are occupied with gift-giving, time spent with family or friends and the various other winter traditions we have.

Yet, we know that these modes of celebration, of engagement with the festive season, are not consistent globally. As different cultures employ and live through their own traditions, here we look at just how these different traditions are translated in literature. We hope you enjoy.

Ludwig Tieck’s Literary Keyhole into a very German Christmas:

This issue would not be complete without a selected Christmas story from Germany. Ludwig Tieck’s 1835 tale, Weihnacht-Abend, reminisces about the festive period in Berlin through the eyes of a German child. In a Dickens-like manner, the short story describes Christmas-time for a poor mother and child with only a penny to spend at the markets on Christmas Eve. In the end, the true Christmas gift is the gift of family, as the son, who the mother had not seen for years, steps through the door to her astonishment.

More superficially, however, the text is adorned with German Christmas traditions and delights, many of which are firm roots in the traditions and customs of holiday celebrations in the country today. The narrator describes the wonders of the Berlin Christmas market. He describes the unmatched atmosphere of the markets as a melting pot of classes, trades and generations. The city is illuminated with thousands of lights from the stalls, which become only more beautiful as dusk falls. Tieck, too, describes the mouth-watering German Christmas treats and charming children’s toys. Lots of them are familiar to a reader today, marzipan and sugar pastries, however, many of Germany’s festive baked goods have remained regional and difficult to translate. The mother comforts her child with the “pfefferkuchen” they have at home, which are spiced biscuits associated with Christmas. The child is stunned by the pyramids, lit up by candles. These spinning wooden tiered structures, said to have been made popular as an alternative for Christmas trees in Germany, and originating from the Erzgebirge region as reminders of light, are still mostly only found in Germany and are heavily associated with its regional traditions.

Like with most publications set at Christmas time, it reminds the reader to think of others, in this case not to get caught up in expensive presents and food, and remember those who worry for the New Year. Christmas tales and literature really can be a window into a country’s customs, especially as they are retold and used as a foundation for the continuation of traditions.

Icelandic Christmas Traditions and Icelandic Children’s Books:

Jólabókaflóðið loosely translates as “Christmas Book Flood” and it’s a fantastic way Icelanders have created to spend their Christmas Eves. Following Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944 and every year since, the Icelandic book trade publishes a book catalogue called Bókatíðindi that is sent to every household in Iceland in mid-November.

Icelanders then use this catalogue to buy their loved ones books and these are given as presents, which typically get opened by lucky recipients on 24 December! The magic then happens, as every book is then opened and embarked on by each reader as they cosy in an inviting nook and often get to sip hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale called jólabland! There’s a reason Iceland is one of the most literate nations in the world and can brag to possess the highest amount of books published and read per person anywhere in the world!

The good news is that following exposure of the Jólabókaflóðið as a concept during various international Book Fairs in 2017, its reputation has grown from strength to strength and its model continues to attract attention globally.

And what better way to start your very own Jólabókaflóðið than by checking out some of the best Icelandic children’s books!

· The Casket of Time by Andri Snaer Magnason, translated by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery. Published by Yonder Restless Books (2019).

A modern re-imagining hybrid of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White by one of Iceland’s most lauded novelists, this is a story of teenager Sigrun who, in order to cope with today’s depressing world news, coaxes his family and many others to hibernate in a Tardis-like contraption called TimeBox®. The trouble is Sigrud’s TimeBox® opens too early, and she encounters a desolate pre-lapsed world, where wilderness has reconquered the world and so she joins a tear away band of kids who are all at the behest of a “scientist” called Grace, seeking to put this new world to rights.

· Icelandic Winter’s Tale: Stúfur and the Snowman by Brian Pilkington. Published by Forlagið (2015).

A heart-warming Icelandic winter’s tale featuring the smallest of the thirteen Icelandic Yule Lads. Aimed at children three to six years old, or anyone who has ever built a snowman. Every page is as pretty as a Christmas card.


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