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The Lowdown: Lucia in Sweden

The Lowdown: Lucia in Sweden

Published: 13 Dec 2010 10:25 GMT+01:00
Updated: 13 Dec 2013 06:15 GMT+01:00

It's one of the most enduring Swedish winter traditions. The tradition of Lucia brings some much needed light into Sweden's winter darkness, The Local's James Savage explains.

My colleagues have told me to get up early for Lucia. Who is Lucia?

Lucia is, or was, St. Lucy, a Catholic saint martyred in Syracuse in 304 AD. In Sweden, she is celebrated in early morning ceremonies on December 13th. In schools and workplaces, a nominated girl or young woman will don a white dress and wear a wreath of candles on her head. The ceremony is usually accompanied by early morning servings of glögg (sweet mulled wine), lussekatter (St. Lucy buns) and ginger snaps.

Why does Sweden go so big on Lucia?

Quite how St. Lucy worked her way into Swedish tradition is unclear, but December 13th was the shortest day of the year under the Julian calendar, which Sweden followed until the 18th century.

It is traditionally held that a maiden dressed in white robes and wearing a crown of candles brought food to starving villagers on the shore of Lake Vänern. Lucia also has links to a German tradition of girls dressing as "Christ children," handing out Christmas presents.

Traditionally, Lucia processions would be held in the home, with daughters dressing up and bringing coffee to their parents. Now, the practice is widespread in workplaces and schools, and newspapers frequently run Lucia competitions for readers.

Is this just something for the girls?

Even in these days of sexual equality, the girls have pretty much got Lucia wrapped up. Still, men are now allowed walk-on parts as Lucia's acolytes, known as "stjärngossar" or "star boys." They also wear the long white robes, but instead of the crowns they wear white, pointy hats.

Didn't I hear something about a song?

Indeed, the Lucia celebrations are accompanied by music, particularly the Neapolitan Song Santa Lucia, which has been given Swedish Lyrics which speak of St. Lucy bringing light in the darkness. It's haunting melody make it a firm favourite for many Swedes.

Sounds lovely, but I'm not keen on getting up early to attend one of these celebrations.

You could always watch it on TV - SVT always broadcasts a traditional Lucia celebration early on the morning of the 13th.

All sounds very pleasant.

It is. There is a more raucous side, however, with Lucia night celebrated by high school pupils partying all night to celebrate the approach of the Christmas holidays.

James Savage (james.savage@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

01:06 December 14, 2009 by estlandsgatan
There are plenty of odd bits as well (as if there aren't in nearly every religious tale). For starters, Lucia's mom was cured of a serious illness and, touched by her recovery, she gave away all her money (including Lucia's dowery) which caused Lucia's fiance to report them as Christians to the authorities. So Lucia poked out her own eyes. But then god gave Lucia her eyes back. The local authority tried to send her to a brothel, but the "1000 men and several oxen" couldn't pull her there. Then the local authority decided to try to burn her, but the fire didn't burn her. They poured boiling oil on her, but she was still unharmed. Then the local executioner cut her with a knife and she died.

So now -- to commemorate this saint -- kids dress up as Lucia, one of her bride's maids (not sure what wedding that referes to), or a star boy (representing the three wise men, but with a wardrobe that looks like a cross between the Pope and Klu Klux Klan), or a mini-Santa, or a giant gingerbread cookie.

Also, the main song they sing is about Lucia bringing the light during the dark winter (although the original song, from Italy, is really about an Italian fishing village of the same name) and another popular song is about the the pitter patter of santa's elves' feet and yet another song is about another saint (Staffan Stalledrang) who had nothing to do with St Lucia, but was the guy who saw the star that signified Jesus' birth. (When Staffan told King Herrod about it, Herrod said the birth of the King of the Jew was about as likely as the cooked rooster on his plate coming back to life, which it reportedly did -- and the rooster stood up and reportedly exclaimed "christ is born")

In otherwords, it seems to be a hodgepodge of convenient Christmas stuff that has been fused with lucia and staffan lore that has developed over the years. (In Smaland, many years ago the Lucia holiday was a big drinking day that included cows running around with Lucia crowns on. Some people would cross dress as well. Some even thought Lucia sounded like Lucifer, and were thus too suspicious of the day to work.)

So go and take pictures of your kids parading around as cookies or santas or Lucias and listen to the songs and have a good time. Most Swedes can take off work early to watch their kids, so enjoy the time off.
14:24 December 13, 2010 by roaringchicken92
Indeed -- enjoy the holiday, even if you don't understand the significance of it because of a strictly literal interpretation.
14:52 December 13, 2010 by stillwatersrd
Delightful! Thanks for the story, estlandsgatan.
19:21 December 15, 2010 by MikeSar
Go visit Linkoping, they do St. Lucia right! And, the wine and the singing and the people parading is all you need to feel there is more to life than good wine and good company, or is there?
13:57 December 13, 2011 by gabeltoon
It all sounds nice.Better that than the moody drunken rabble that happens here in the UK. It's time we Brits took a look at themselves and start to enjoy the season in a more traditional way. HAPPY HOLIDAYS.
14:48 December 13, 2011 by eltechno
I say any holiday that teaches children how to sing is a good holiday. Happy St. Lucia Day everyone!
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