Jolabokaflod: The best holiday you’ve never heard of

Jolabokaflod: The best holiday you’ve never heard of

By Chris Gavin

The holidays are a special time of year with so much to celebrate. Many of us observe several celebrations this time of year: Hannukah, Christmas, Winter Solstice, New Year’s, Christmas Eve, Kwanzaa, and more. A few years ago, I was introduced by a friend to a tradition hailing from Iceland and have been celebrating it annually ever since: Jolabokaflod.

Jolabokaflod translates to Christmas Book Flood in English and its origins in Iceland trace back to World War 2. During this conflict, shortages and war-time rationing led to a dearth of material goods for the gift giving season. One resource that wasn’t affected as much as others on Iceland was paper. Because paper was easier to obtain, book printing continued and book giving on Christmas Eve, the traditional time for gift exchange in many European countries, became the norm and continued post-wartime. To this day, publishers in Iceland often put their lists out to the public in late November expecting huge sales in December as Icelanders buy books to give one another on Jolabokaflod. People in Iceland give each other books and chocolate on Jolabokaflod and spend the evening reading and eating chocolate and other delicious foods on this wintery evening.

As hunting and conservation are a big part of my life, it was natural and easy to incorporate these themes into my family’s Wisconsin-based Jolabokaflod celebration. For starters, there are the books. I always recommend Aldo Leopold’s classic A Sand County Almanac. It’s considered by many to be the Bible of the modern American environmental movement with many stories of the hunt and a challenge, and it is as timely today as when it was penned in 1949. If you’re interested in foraging, you can’t do better than any one (or all three) of Samuel Thayer’s guidebooks on the subject: The Forager’s Harvest, Nature’s Garden, and Incredible Wild Edibles. Books on hunting and fishing, whether of the how-to variety, anthologies, or humor a la Gordon MacQuarrie and Bill Heavy, are too numerous to list, but I’d be severely remiss if I failed to mention Hank Shaw’s cookbooks.

As an adult-onset hunter, my trajectory into the culinary world of game cooking might sound familiar to others not raised to value and honor wild meat in the kitchen as well as the field. Growing up, I didn’t do a great deal of cooking in general, and a post high school stint in the Marine Corps taught me only what I didn’t ever want to eat again. Picking up hunting afterward, there was a lot of trial and error. To be honest, it was mostly errors. The things I did to wild game back then was a sin against meat and man. 

Eventually, I got to the point where my dishes were passable. For example, I stopped overcooking my steaks, but they fell short of being described as “good.” Enter Hank Shaw’s Buck, Buck, Moose. This book single-handedly caused my wife to go from, “Do you really have to go shoot Bambi this weekend?” to “Don’t come back without the barbacoa!” Along with Shaw’s other titles, Duck, Duck, Goose, Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail, and Hunt, Gather, Cook, you’ve got gift ideas that might just keep giving! 

While on the topic of wild game cookery, the traditional foods for Jolabokaflod are a special smorgasbord called Julbord and hot cocoa. Venison sausages, smoked duck or salmon, wild prosciutto, and others can make an appearance on your Julbord. If you are very adventurous and happen to have harvested a Greenland shark and fermented it for several weeks, you could make kaestur hakarl, a rather unusual Icelandic delicacy. For last year’s Jolabokaflod, I made a recipe called Icelandic Venison with Blueberry Sauce that I found in, you guessed it, Buck, Buck, Moose.

This year, I’m going with a Julebord featuring hunted and gathered ingredients.  Shown here is a spread with hickory braunschweiger, cream cheese and wild blueberries, red peppers, pickled ramps, venison summer sausage, cheese, crackers, rye bread, smoked lake trout dip and, of course, hot cocoa.

Fish is a common component of the Julebord, and I’m fond of a smoked lake trout dip. My recipe is simple:

  • ¼ lb. smoked lake trout (I used hickory-smoked lake trout from Lake Superior)
  • 3 tbsp cream cheese
  • 3 tbsp sour cream
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic
  • ¼ tsp salt

To pull it together, remove the skin and bones from the smoked fish, mince the garlic, and combine all the ingredients in a bowl stirring until the fish has flaked apart. Easy and straightforward, but oh-so delicious. I like to keep it this simple and let the hickory smoke flavor shine through, but the recipe lends itself well to additions. Like it spicy? Add ½ of a finely chopped jalapeno pepper. Season it up with your favorite herbs; dill would be traditional. Want to impress someone from Scandinavia? Mix in some lingonberries, a close relative of our cranberries. The possibilities are endless.

If you’re in the mood to mix up the holidays a little, put out a crockpot full of hot cocoa for the kids and curl up with a good read. I’m not sure what I’m getting for Jolabokaflod this year, but The Meateater’s Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival is at the top of my list…

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