The Lucia celebration is something that Swedes themselves, and also the rest of the world consider as the most typical Swedish tradition.
The Lucia celebration, which is considered as typically Swedish today is really international when you look at the background and development of the tradition. Additionally, our customs around Lucia are among the most complicated during our whole year of celebration.
According to our celebratory tradition the 13th of December should be the longest night of the year. And the fact is that in the time reckoning of the old calendars it was actually so. It was the time of the winter solstice.
That night it was considered important that both man and beast should get a little extra something to eat. A "Lucia bite" was important. The animals could each get their unthreshed sheaf of oats or also some tidbits from the kitchen. It did happen that one dropped a little schnapps on the sheaf and told the animals that now was "Lusseotta" (as Julotta is on Christmas morning.)
Enjoy some of our recent films from Lucia celebrations in Swedish America: http://www.youtube.com/nordstjernan
or at http://vimeo.com/33452336
The Queen of Light
But where appears in the picture the saint from Syracuse or our beautiful queen of light, the attendants, star boys, glögg and saffron buns?
Saint Lucia's Day was assigned in the calendar of saints to the 13th of December ever since early Christian times. But our old folk customs ought not to have had anything to do with her. It is not even certain that the customs which began to show up in western Swedish manor houses around 1800 had anything to do with it either from the beginning. But in 1764 she was there in any case at an estate in Västergötland, dressed in white with a candle in her hand.
There is much to indicate that it was German contacts, which brought with them the custom to higher middle class circles in western Sweden. It was certainly there that the folksy customs to celebrate this morning were found. For at least 100 years however the new way of celebrating Lucia became an experience, which only occurred in certain selected circles of friends.
But also this time organization life and schools have meant a great deal to strengthen and spread a new custom. In the same way that the rectory and mansion earlier were most important in promotion of culture, so it was that in the middle of the 1800's it was the school and the local folk movements that people were likely to follow. Today there is no doubt that it is our mass media, naturally television primarily, which steer the trends and new ideas into our consciousness.
In relations to schools a Lucia celebration fitted well with the "djäknegång.” which before the folk schools were instituted in the 1840's had been involved with the end of the school term at this time of year. It was a usual thing to go round and beg for money on the way to school. And for organizations it was important, with nice, preferably new, additions to the pre-Christmas celebration which should gather together as many as possible. And as always selling and recruiting of members was very important for the finances.
In the beginning of the 1900s it became all the more usual with Lucia processions. But the custom certainly would not have attained its present position and continued spreading if the newspaper Stockholms Dagblad had not decided in 1927 to crown a Lucia for the capital city. Since that day Lucia contests have developed more and more and today there is hardly any small village that does not crown its own queen of light. And at many work places and in many Swedish homes a Lucia procession is held, and the morning of December 13 is celebrated.
Text based on research by Professor Jan-Ojvind Swahn, Sweden
Unlikely climate for a Lucia - Sofia Dickens, photographed for Nordic Reach at Laguna Beach, 2006. Photography: Henrik Olund