Why Swedes cherish Sankta Lucia
For this winter's tale, imagine yourself in Sweden, where the summer and winter solstices have had special meaning since long before the days of the Vikings. These are two great secular holidays—during midsummer the sun never sets; during midwinter, it never rises.
Now we find ourselves in a land locked in seasonal darkness. Imagine how the people long for the light of day and you’ll appreciate why they celebrate midsummer without sleeping. In midwinter, not only is it frightfully dark, but it’s also chillingly cold.
This was how it was before the Vikings. Being great navigators who reached Rome and Constantinople by the Mediterranean Sea or the European rivers, they were well aware of the midwinter solstice even without the Julian calendar. When Rome changed to the Gregorian calendar to more accurately track Easter, this moved the winter solstice up a week or more, throwing St. Lucy’s Day from December 21 to December 13 and Christmas closer to the winter solstice with its symbolic promise of spiritual rebirth.
I cherish memories of having grown up celebrating Sankta Lucia first with my mormor (grandmother) and other seniors in my family before we did it for my parents. I remember my father taking me early one December 13 to my fourth grade teacher’s apartment! It’s one thing to celebrate Sankta Lucia in Sweden where everyone loves the tradition, but it’s another thing to be wandering the dark streets of San Francisco in a white nightgown. People look out their window and see you in a dunce cap and think “that’s appropriate!” And you’re walking behind your sister in her nightgown with real candles burning in a crown on her head. It’s lucky that we didn’t have the fire engines racing to get to us before the goon squad reached us.
Years later, Apple sent me to Sweden on business in December, and knowing my traditions they put me up at the Grand Hotel. The next morning I awoke early to watch the many Lucia troupes serenading each of the Nobel Laureates on the day they were awarded their prizes. (Imagine going down the elevator to breakfast with the brainpower of the world!)
So, how did this tradition begin?
When one has the luxury of picking among multiple legends one can choose the best … or make up his own. The legend of Sankta Lucia begins in Roman times when the emperor was trying to stamp out the troublesome new cult of hippies called Christians, who dared to worship someone other than himself.
The maiden Lucia came from a wealthy family in Syracuse, Italy. It is said she was betrothed to a Roman legionnaire, but when he found she had given her dowry to the poor, he turned her in as a Christian. The authorities did whatever was necessary to get at the truth. When she would not recant, they tried to blind her but they could not and she was condemned to be burned at the stake, though even then they had to stab her. So she was martyred and became the patron saint of the blind. When it was safe to do so, and Christianity had conquered Rome, Syracuse named their bay after her and proclaimed Lucia their patron saint.
By the time Catholic Christianity reached Scandinavia, the saint’s feast day, according to the old Julian calendar, was at the winter solstice. (Later the Gregorian calendar would “correct” this to put Easter on the vernal equinox, symbolically placing the birth of Christ near the winter solstice.)
The legend fit nicely with the yearning for light in the midst of darkness, after which the days would gradually lighten, and Sweden made the legend its own. They added to the saint’s legend, telling of a great hunger in Värmland, when drought and famine were consuming the impoverished people. On this the darkest night with people dying of thirst and hunger, the people beheld in the pitch dark a ship of salvation coming over Lake Vanern, and almost like a bowspirit they could make out an angelic figure clad in white with a halo. The ship was laden with food which the saint distributed to the starved people. They recognized her as Sankta Lucia. When all were fed and drowsy, she disappeared as silently as she had come. But the people never forgot, and the tale lingered in folk wisdom.
The Lucia traditions that we know today were regionally celebrated in the heartland in the 1880s but didn’t begin to show up in Sweden’s more cosmopolitan urban centers until the 1920s. About that time it is said that a Swedish newsman roaming in Italy came to Syracuse where he heard the lilting melody of the Santa Lucia song, a song of a Neapolitan boatman enjoying a balmy night and wishing that the gentle breeze would waft him back to his beautiful harbor of Santa Lucia, named for their patron saint. So, the newsman returned to Sweden with the tune, created words for the Swedish occasion, and married it to the legend.
Now the festival of Sankta Lucia is celebrated in every city, town, village and hamlet of Sweden. The newspapers annually create a news sensation by touting the contest for Lucia, who on Lucy’s Day visits the sick and the schools, officials and factories. In fact the famously egalitarian Swedes no longer let this be an American beauty pageant. Now youngsters and adults, boys as well as girls, can claim the role of Lucia. And in businesses and factories, a Lucia and her court with other women and star-boys make the rounds of every cubicle wishing everyone well as this festival beckons the yuletide spirit and Christmas season even more than Advent does.
In their mind and memory, on this day, all Swedes see themselves tiptoeing toward the darkened bedroom of their parents early on the morning of December 13 to wake them with a brimming pot of coffee and freshly baked luciakattor (Lucy buns), as the light of the candles on the oldest daughter’s head mimic the first streaks of dawn. The hallowed song revives all the cherished memories of innocence and family love.
In that spirit, I wish all of you the warmth and fellowship of Sankta Lucia Day when, grateful for all or our blessings, we look forward to new and brighter days.
By Ted Olsson, San Francisco