The Lucia celebration is something that Swedes themselves, and also the rest of the world consider as the most typical Swedish tradition.
The Sankta Lucia celebration, which is considered 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 of the year.
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 for both man and beast to get a little extra something to eat. A "Lucia bite" was important. The animals could each get their unthreshed sheaf of oats or 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).
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Now the festival of Sankta Lucia is celebrated all over Sweden. The newspapers create a news sensation by touting the contest for Lucia, who on Dec. 13 visits the sick and the schools, officials and factories with her court of maidens and star boys. They make the rounds, wishing everyone well as this festival beckons the yuletide spirit and Christmas season even more than Advent does.
On this day, all Swedes have memories of 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 lussekatter (Lucia 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.
Many Swedish American families keep this tradition alive in their homes as well as in churches and festival settings throughout the days surrounding Dec. 13. With a crown of candles on her head, Lucia and her attendants sing songs in the candlelit darkness, serve pepparkakor and lussekatter, and perhaps join with everyone in dancing around the Christmas tree.
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 from the beginning. But in 1764 she was there 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.
Schools have meant a great deal in strengthening and spreading a new custom. In the same way the rectory and mansion had been most important in the promotion of culture, so it was in the schools during the mid-1800s that local folk movements were followed by people. Today there is no doubt that it is our mass media, television primarily, which steer the trends and new ideas into our consciousness.
In relation to schools, a Lucia celebration fit well with the "djäknegång” which before the folk schools were instituted in the 1840s 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 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 a small village that doesn't 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