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Things you should NEVER say to a Swede on Lucia day

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Things you should NEVER say to a Swede on Lucia day
Sweden's traditional Lucia is pretty strange. Photo: Cecilia Larsson/imagebank.sweden.se
07:50 CET+01:00
Sweden celebrates its favourite Italian Catholic saint on December 13th. Don't say these things to the Swedes on this beloved winter holiday.

1. It's too early in the morning (det är för tidigt på morgonen)

Here's what you do. You get up early in the morning on December 13th, go to your school, workplace, local church, or what have you, and watch as a nominated girl or young woman dons a white dress, wears a wreath of candles on her head and sings Christmas songs. Don't complain about the fact that it's still pitch black outside (this is Sweden in winter). If you prefer to stay in your pyjamas, switch on your TV to watch Swedish public broadcaster SVT showing the event.

If you're a Nobel winner, there's absolutely no escaping this peculiar Swedish tradition. Because December 13th is just a few days after the Nobel Prize gets handed out in Sweden, the Nobel laureates traditionally get woken up in their Stockholm hotel rooms by Lucia and her fellow singers.


Nobel laureate Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and his wife in 1997. Photo:  Agnes Henriksson Fjeldstad/TT 

2. Isn't she from Italy? (är hon inte från Italien?)

It's a bit surprising that one of the secular Swedes' favourite holidays is named after a saint. Even more surprising that she is, or was, Italian. Lucia (or Saint Lucy) was a Catholic girl martyred in Syracuse, Sicily, in 304 AD. It remains unclear quite how she worked her way into Swedish tradition, although December 13th was marked as the shortest day of the year under the Julian calendar way back in the 14th century. Anyway, best not get tied up in a history debate with your colleagues. Just smile along nicely.


Stockholm's Lucia visiting Syracuse in 2003. Photo: Toni Sica/SCANPIX

3. Why is that man wearing a skirt? (varför bär den där mannen en kjol?)

Even in these days of gender equality, the girls have pretty much got Lucia wrapped up. But it is becoming increasingly common for schools, workplaces and charities organizing the traditional Lucia procession to pick a man to headline the act, albeit usually as a ploy. However, the break with tradition did spark a media storm in southern Sweden in 2014 after a boy was picked to represent his school as Lucia. In 2016 a major retail chain was forced to pull its advert of a boy as Lucia after he received racist abuse.


Some Swedes apparently also dress their dogs up as Lucia. Photo:  Agnes Henriksson Fjeldstad/TT 

4. What's a gnome doing next to a gingerbread man and a boy in a pointy hat? (vad gör en tomte bredvid en pepparkaksgubbe och en pojke i spetsig hatt?)

The modern Lucia procession includes several other popular characters. Children dress up as Swedish 'tomtar' (gnomes), gingerbread men, and 'stjärngossar' ('star boys'), as well as Lucia and her maidens. They all have their own theme songs to which the Swedes know all the lyrics. The star boys are an excuse for men who did not fancy putting candles in their hair but would quite like a dress to live out their dream. They also wear long, white robes, but instead of a crown of candles they get a pointy hat.


Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Carl Philip in 1984. Photo:  Anders Holmström/TT

5. I don't like saffron (jag tycker inte om saffran)

As the famous Swedish saying goes, a holiday is not a holiday without some bizarre Swedish food to accompany it (there's a possibility we just made that up). But be prepared to gorge on traditional saffron-flavoured Swedish Lucia buns (lussekatter). Oh and don't forget to wash everything down with some glögg.


Lucia with her saffron buns. Photo: Emelie Asplund/imagebank.sweden.se

6. I thought they had banned Lucia? (jag trodde att de hade förbjudit Lucia?)

Almost every year, at least one story of a Swedish town scrapping Lucia goes viral – this news cycle is almost as much of a December tradition as Lucia itself. One school was forced to backtrack in 2012 after it told pupils not to dress up as brown gingerbread men, another popular Lucia character, for its procession. It usually boils down simply to waning interest. Bah humbug we say to that!


Stockholm's Lucia in 2017. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT 

What does a Lucia procession look like? Check out this video

This article was first published on The Local in December 2015 and updated in 2017.

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