On December 13th, Sweden celebrates Saint Lucia Day.
The Swedes borrowed this Christmas figure from the Italians then reworked her story, grinding, blending, and stuffing it into a Swedish sausage casing that resulted in the unique experience that became Sweden’s Saint Lucia.
Traditionally, on the morning of Saint Lucia, one female child wearing a white robe and a crown of lit candles leads a procession of children into the parents’ bedroom while singing the Saint Lucia song.
The children arrive bringing song, coffee, sweet saffron pastries and – most importantly – light, into the dark room.
All schools in Sweden also host Saint Lucia pageants. Celebrating the holiday and reflecting the need for light and song at the darkest time of year, these events are more like processions than beauty pageants.
However, the selection of Lucia can take on beauty pageant qualities.
Judges consider looks and height, but singing ability, however, remains a crucial factor.
These Lucia pageants begin in daycare and continue up into high school. The daycare versions permit multiple Lucias, and those not wishing to portray Lucia can dress as various other Christmas characters.
We enrolled our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter in daycare a few months after we arrived in Sweden in July.
This daycare’s tradition offered the standard procession for the parents as well as a visit to a local retirement home.
When asked which Christmas character my daughter wished to portray I assumed my dominant, take-charge, I-always-want-to-decide, child would pick Saint Lucia.
However she chose to be an angel.
Unfortunately, her teachers denied her wish.
When she asked why, they explained that angels were not on the list of culturally mandated Swedish Christmas characters.
You see, angels have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas in Sweden.
So began her indoctrination into Swedish Christmas culture.
They then welcomed her to choose from the list of culturally mandatory and sanctioned Christmas characters.
For starters, there was Saint Lucia herself, the martyred Sicilian Catholic saint who wears a white robe, a crown of candles, and a red sash representing Lucia’s spilt blood.
Other options included being a handmaiden for Lucia, the classic elf, or a gingerbread boy, where kids don brown pajamas with white trim and berets fashioned to look like little gingerbread men.
This outfit, the perfect fit for the child with that casaul Friday fashion sense, comes in the new onesie style or the traditional two-piece version.
And when it comes to Yule time tradition, Christian or pagan, nothing says Christmas better than children dressed as gingerbread men.
But for a uniquely Swedish experience, they also offered the star boy, who dress in white robes, wear star-studded dunce hats,
This stylish Ku-Klux-Klan-meets-Harry-Potter character just screams Christmas, and is completed with a stick topped with a gold star.
Despite the name, girls may portray this character (however star boy gender reassignment applications must be submitted to the Swedish Christmas Culture Board no later than three weeks prior to Christmas).
As for angels – please no, because angels have nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas in Sweden.
Although considering the school’s tradition included visiting a retirement home, the rejection of my daughter’s top choice of an angel can be interpreted as stemming from rather pragmatic reasoning.
If the elderly people saw white lights and angels coming in the room they may think:
“Oh this is it. They’re coming for me.”
And traumatizing the children with a mass cardiac arrest flash mob has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas in Sweden.
So, after this rejection she returned to the proverbial costume box, and after quiet reflection my daughter who lives in a Swenglish world where words from both Swedish and English fail her awkwardly at times asked:
“Dad, what’s the name of Santa Claus’s, you know, wife?”
“Mrs. Claus?” I reply.
“Yeah, I’m gonna be her,” explained my daughter, a natural default choice for a dominant child.
If my gender excludes me from being Santa then I’ll be his wife. If I can’t be the boss of Christmas then I’ll be the boss of the boss!
So back to her daycare’s Saint Lucia Pageant Costume Committee she went…and was again summarily denied.
Even though the pageant includes Santa’s helpers and Santa himself arrives after the procession to give out gifts, Mrs. Claus has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas in Sweden.
I found this a bit disappointing in such a progressive, feminist, egalitarian society. But tradition is tradition.
So finally, after pondering the true meaning of Christmas, she decided to be Jesus Christ. This choice makes sense on every level particularly if you enjoy leading, directing, and being the centre of attention.
As she announced her new choice, I saw the wheels turning. In her imagination she would arrive at school as the king of kings himself rolling into the room and announcing:
“People, it’s me: Jesus Christ, bow down! Let the holiday begin and you gingerbread boys bring me some hot chocolate, now!”
But alas her request was denied because Jesus Christ has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas in Sweden.
Steven Karwoski lives in Malmö with his wife and daughter. He writes about living and working in Sweden and the country’s obvious and not-so-obvious oddities.