What if Lucia isn’t blonde? And what if tomten (Santa) is played by a girl? In times of equal opportunity for all, what happens to tradition? Should it matter?

For the last few years, new Lucia debates have become national news in Sweden: In 2011 school boys were prevented from being Lucia; in 2012, a Lucia with dark skin raised questions among some groups; and, this year an 11-year-old wasn’t allowed to be tomten at her school because she is a girl. The school backed down after an outcry in social media, but people are asking why the annual Sankta Lucia celebrations bring up such strong emotions.

ADVERTISEMENT
Volvo Overseas - the ultimate experience

Folklorist Tora Wall at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm says people want to see traditions as if they are a part of their own identity, their personal history. “Many see Lucia as a very old tradition, even if it is really isn’t,” says Wall. But the tradition has been around long enough for it to have been part of everyone’s lives. “It got its first breakthrough in 1890, when Arthur Hazelius introduced Lucia celebrations at Skansen. Then, the Lucia with long blonde hair and beautiful face took shape when the first Lucia contest was held by the (daily newspaper) Stockholms Dagblad in 1927. Eventually starboys, elves and gingerbread men joined the celebration to create what’s known as the Luciatag (Lucia train).”

Though it’s mostly children who participate in the Sankta Lucia celebrations, it's adult volunteers who usually organize them. And in American Lucia celebrations, the events as much as possible mirror what they’ve been for generations to preserve the tradition. But in Sweden, Lucia is evolving. Wall mentions that small Christmas trees and cats have appeared more and more often in Lucia processions, and she hints that snowmen might also soon have a larger role in the celebration.

In a few Swedish communities, however, the Lucia tradition may be evolving right out of existence. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find a Lucia and enough willing participants — some organization have given up on the celebration altogether. It has happened enough that two years ago Swedish Radio Kulturnytt was moved to dig deeper: 30 percent of the municipalities they surveyed were not having an official Lucia celebration.

This year, Lidingö’s 46-year-old Lucia tradition is coming to an end because it would have had only one participant. Aneby couldn’t find the seven participants it requires for a luciakör (Lucia choir). Hudiksvall has exactly seven and is surviving another year, but Njutånger isn’t even trying to organize Lucia celebrations for 2014.

But why is this happening? Why is this beloved tradition, an important part of the Swedish culture, showing signs of decline? “It’s anybody's guess,” says Mats Nilsson, associate professor of ethnology at the University of Gothenburg. He offers a couple theories, though, one of which is that the celebration as we know it requires too much work. “Lucia is often driven by volunteers, and all volunteer-based work is struggling now.”

Nilsson thinks another reason may be because people feel the festival is dated. To have a beauty contest might not be a thing of this day and age, he says. There's a certain resistance against beauty contests, which, like it or not, is to some degree what Lucia is perceived to be. “Things simply go out of fashion if they do not serve any purpose,” says Agneta Lilja, ethnologist at Södertörn University.

In recognition of that, some communities have moved from electing a Lucia based on looks to one chosen through an audition. In fact, as of just last year, Sweden's official Lucia, organized through Skansen, the open-air Swedish history museum and zoo in Stockholm, is no longer elected — instead local music teachers will select the singer they feel best fits the role. And Gothenburg's Lucia is elected by the public through an online vote, based on the seven candidates' performances at Christmas markets and festivals, nursing homes, hospices and companies around the city. The winner of Gothenburg's Lucia crown will be revealed on Dec. 10, just in time for the Sankta Lucia holiday on Dec. 13.