Frugal Chariots

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.

Linda with the littlest reader, Camila
My fellow volunteer-teacher, Aurora

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 ( ).

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.

18 thoughts on “Frugal Chariots”

  1. Bonnie…I loved your description of Iceland giving books for Christmas – see – people DO still read! And what a nice gift to those little ones – the (very real) pleasure of reading. I think I will join you in MY bed this Christmas with a good book!

  2. Dear Bon,

    What a wonderful post about a fantastic tradition. If only American children would all be happy to receive books. They are the best presents in my opinion.
    I love that you see yourself as living your own version of happily ever after. I think of my life in the same way.
    Christmas in bed also sounds delightful. My guess is that more people would prefer to spend the day that way than you might think.
    Wishing you a peaceful, contented Christmas.

    Much love,

    1. Thank you, Paul dear. And I think your guess is so right — more people that we’d think would LOVE to spend Christmas day in bed with a book. I hope yours is a contended Christmas too. — BB xx

  3. My Christmas holiday tradition is to reread Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I think it should be required reading for every child, or the movie adaptation. But books have always been my friends and I have always given them as gifts. YAY books!

  4. Of course, a blatant bibliophile like me is swooning over this post. My affection is so great that my Facebook friends constantly send me posts about the Iceland tradition. So love what you’ve added to the conversation…and the plug for John Pavlovitz, another of my favorites.

  5. LOTS OF CANDLES, PLENTY OF CAKE, one of my all time favorite books. As a matter of fact, I went to an Anna Quindlan book signing and presentation. My new favorite book is Michelle Obama’s BECOMING, Beautifully written and riveting. Hope it’s on your list in the future. May 2019 bring you good health, peace and joy. Sending love your way, Bonnie

    1. Thank you, Arti dear. Yes, I’m looking forward to reading Quindlen’s book; I remember how much I used to enjoy her columns when she wrote for the NYTimes. I haven’t yet read Michelle’s memoir, but it’s on my list. Wishing you all good things for 2019 too. — Mucho love from MX, BB xx

  6. Thank you for this, Bonnie. Six weeks now before my arrival in Ajijic with my Cocker Spaniel, Cedar. I will turn 70 nine days after we arrive, and Cedar will turn 13 a month and a half later. So I am lost in total down-size mode. This week was my very large collection of books – some given away to friends, but most were donated to my local Library, which I have visited almost weekly for the past ten years. It has been a physically and emotionally daunting week. I’ve held back only three books to bring with me……”The Souls of Lambs”, a beautiful book on Herbs given to me by my Mother, and the children’s book “The Poppy Seed Cakes”. I wrestled with “Solo”, a collection of stories written by Women about their solo adventures, but in the end, let it go. I couldn’t find my copy of “The Snow Goose”, my Christmas Eve ritual. Just as well…… heart-wrenching decision to made concerning that one! Sending you blessings.

    1. Thank you, Lucille. I can totally empathize with the physical and emotional stress you’ve been under in downsizing in advance of your move to MX. I’ve been there and been through it (and written about it in my WOW posts — check the archives). But you’ll find it’s all well worth it. And if they have a wonderful library in Ajijic, like the Biblioteca here in San Miguel, you’ll be all set! — Best wishes, Bonnie

  7. Your Christmas chariot sounds just perfect! A perfect day is surrounded by books and a warm, comforting drink. Enjoy, dear Bonnie!

  8. Thank you, Bonnie, for tying Christmas to reading. Michael and I had plans to go to Mya & Wally’s for Christmas Eve, but they both got pretty nasty colds. I wondered what Michael and I could do to substitute the warm time we’d been anticipating and thought BOOKS! We could read each other books all evening! The last time I entirely missed out on Christmas Eve was the blizzard of ’82 in Denver. My little family (only David was with us; Ellie would be born one year later) stayed home by the fire and read books to each other. It is by far our most memorable Christmas.

    Felice Navidad, Bonnie!

    1. Ah, Barb, I’m so glad to know you’ll be staying home and reading books instead of risking nasty cold germs! What will you be reading, I’d love to know? I’m thrilled that you’ve made such a miraculous recovery from heart surgery. My prayers have been answered! — Feliz Navidad a ti! — xx

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