An unsuitable school saint
One of those unexpected elements is the relationship between Lucia and Santa. You see, Lucia is some kind of a twin to Santa/Tomten/the Yule Goat. The blonde carrier of lights and the bearded gift giver are both symbols of the transformations that Nicholas, the old bishop and saint, went through. When the Reformation swept from northern Europe all worship of saints and saints’ days, they were viewed as papal emblems; some figures offered more resistance than others, and perhaps that’s why they’ve come to play such important parts in our society. Among them we find Nicholas, the patron of schoolchildren, and no doubt all schoolchildren’s great delight come Christmas.
Nicholas would come on December 6 (his saint’s day) dressed as a bishop, distributing buns, apples and other goodies for kind and diligent children, while a devil in his company would slap the lazy and fussy ones, threatening to carry them off to hell in a sack. Such practices could not be tolerated in evangelical circles, but in Germany the reformation took baby steps. There were places where the bearded prelate was exchanged for Baby Jesus, who took over the gift giving, but elsewhere one kept the figure of an old man, giving him another name, Julgubben (the Yule Man). At the same time the celebration was moved from the schools to the homes. And thus the old bishop from Myra, Asia Minor was rendered harmless.

The more suitable Baby Jesus
We all know what Saint Nicholas looks like, but how does one dress up Baby Jesus? Well, you take a pretty girl, put her in a white gown and give her a halo of candles to wear in her hair. Such a “Christkindlein” or “Kinken-Jes” (Low German for Kindchen Jesus) belonged to the Christmas tradition in Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries. Just like old Nicholas, “Kinken-Jes” was accompanied by the devil (who played just as important a part in the Reformed Church as in the Catholic Church), who frightened little children with his capers and his rod. There are many contemporary pictures of rustic German Christmas celebrations taking place some 200 years ago, full of evidence that the German Baby Jesus is our Lucia’s direct prototype.
Immigrated Germans introduced the white-gowned Kinken-Jes-girl to Swedes in the 17th century, and she is mentioned in several diaries from that time. However, “Kinken-Jes” didn’t manage to take root in Swedish Christmas celebrations. Perhaps priests at the time didn’t find her suitable for the Christmas feast.
But there was a precursor to Christmas, at least in a western Swedish tradition, and that was Lucia Day (or Lucia Night, rather), and for that “Kinken-Jes” seemed more fitting. This Lucia Day tradition most probably took place during the earlier half of the 18th century and only in the upper classes – as only educated people could make a connection between the light of the little girl’s crown and the day’s name, Lucia, which comes from Latin’s lux: light. In the peasant culture, Lucia was associated with “Lucifer” and no saintly creatures ever came from such a name.


The Paradise Vision of a priest, 1764
The first time a white-gowned Lucia is mentioned is in 1764. A young theologian from Lund had then been hired as a tutor at a castle in Västergötland. When as a pastor he wrote his memoirs 50 years later, he mentioned the terrible experience he had back in 1764 on the 13th of December. He woke up, and there in his room stood a winged, angelic figure, with a tray full of beer, pork and snaps - “they call it lussebete” – and candles. “I thought I had died and come to Heaven,” the old pastor remembers. And from that we can glean how Paradise was thought of in those days.

“Goodbye to pork”
That this masquerade took place on Lucia Night probably also had other reasons. During the Middle Ages, December 13 was when julfastan (the Nativity Fast) began, lasting until Christmas Eve. Preparing for a fast, one must really fuel up, and since the fast started at sunrise on the 13th, the hours right before meant the last chance to binge on meat. So everybody had a last bite or two of the newly slaughtered julegris (Christmas pig). In fact, in some parts of Sweden it was custom to eat several breakfasts. And forget about coffee and buns - it was beer and pork and snaps one consumed. By tradition Lucia Day was also a day when one wasn’t allowed to work, nobody chopped wood or spun wool. This, too, had a practical background: Most men were simply too drunk to use an axe and most women too drunk to make the wool smooth. Yes, the womenfolk drank just as much as the men. And somehow it was to this early orgy of pork and snaps, in the shadow of the coming fast, that the “Kinken-Jes” reappeared as a “party hostess” of sorts. In Germany the gown of the Christkindlein vanished, leaving traces only as a Germanic angel on Christmas cards and ornaments.

Lussekatter – the Devil’s invention?
One of the details that ties old Saint Nicholas to our Lucia is without a doubt the “lussekatter”, those S-shaped buns with saffron which Lucia serves. These “lussekatter” had been amongst the goodies that Saint Nicholas gave the schoolchildren before the Reformation. “Kinken-Jes” inherited them, and not long afterwards they showed up again, this time on Lucia’s tray! The lussekatter came to Sweden during the 18th century but were then called “dyvelskatter" (“djävulskatter” or in English “devil’s treasures”), a Low German word. Eventually they got their proper Swedish name, lussekattter.
The buns inherited their shape from another bread baked at the same time, the julkaka (Christmas cake). The symbolic meanings of the shape of the lussekatter are many, and comparatively young and untraditional. In that they are related to our thoughts about how many candles there ought to be in Lucia’s crown, the meaning of her sash and so on. But Lucifer, Mister Devil himself, is present on Lucia Day not only in the shape of a bun: Among Lucia’s attendants there is usually a Yule Goat, and he certainly belongs there, since he, too, has his origins in the early Saint Nicholas celebrations. The Yule Goat had a piece of fur thrown over his shoulders and was the most important buffoon of the early Scandinavian Christmas celebration, and is most certainly a remnant of the Saint Nicholas celebrations that took place in schools on December 6. The devil did not become a persona non grata during the Reformation but had to act on his own.

What happened to the girl from Sicily?
What about the real Lucia, the Sicilian saint and patron of eye specialists? Why not a word about her? Well, it’s simply because her only connection with our Nordic Lucia tradition is that she, long after the fact, has lent her name to our tradition or, rather, to the main character of our tradition. The real Lucia has nothing to do with the white gown, the songs, or the saffron buns. No Italian has ever witnessed a Luciatåg, not unless he has visited Sweden or Finland at that particular time of year. Well, the song “Natten går tunga fjät” is Italian, isn’t it? Yes it is, but it is never sung in Italy at celebrations like this one. It is said that it stems from a little fishing village called Santa Lucia and that the fishermen sing it when they sail home. A Swedish tourist to Italy heard it some 100 years ago and thought it fitting for the celebrations on the morning of December 13.

A Lucia Explosion
Some 150 years ago or so, Lucia was celebrated only in the western parts of Sweden. But with thanks to students from these parts, the tradition was brought to the universities of Lund and Uppsala and thus leaked out to the rest of the country.
In 1928 the newspaper Stockholms Dagblad first selected an official Lucia, which had elements of both beauty pageant and charity. It became a whole new custom, befitting a society in need of traditions to celebrate.
Here was Lucia, just made for offices, hospitals, schools and assorted clubs. That must be why the new custom spread with explosive speed from Stockholm to the rest of Sweden and Finland. Needless to say, the success of that first Lucia secured her position as a darling of the media.

Originally written in Swedish by Jan-Öjvind Swahn