Saint Lucia

Sankta Lucia

A Lucia celebration at Skansen, Stockholm

Luciadagen (Lucia's Day) is one of my favourite days for being in Sweden. The day is greatly loved by Swedes (and visitors who stumble across Lucia celebrations are just besotted by their charm). If you are planning to visit Sweden in the run up to Christmas, try and arrange your visit to coincide with Luciadagen.

What is it about?

It is to celebrate the coming of lighter days.

When is Luciadagen?

It is celebrated on December 13th.

Is that the shortest day of the year?

No, but until the 18th century most of Europe followed a different calendar, known as the Julian calendar, and December 13th was the shortest day of the year under that calendar.

Who was Sankta Lucia?

Sankta Lucia (Saint Lucia) is thought to have been a young Italian Christian girl who was killed for her faith in 304AD. It is said that she secretly took food to the persecuted Christians in Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city. She would wear candles on her head so that she had both her hands free to carry food.

Saint Lucia's eyes are said to have been so beautiful that they were admired by anyone who looked into them. So in an act of chastity she tore them out. For this great sacrifice God gave her a pair of even prettier eyes! As a result Saint Lucia is the Protector of the Blind and the Saint of Light.

So what is her connection with Sweden?

None really. No one really knows why an Italian saint was adopted by Swedes.

What is the connection with light?

The name Lucia comes from the Latin word "lux", meaning "light". Lucia thus became the symbol of someone who would entice the sun out in times of darkness. It maybe that Swedes adopted Lucia because the days are very short in Sweden, so they wanted her to be part of their winter solstice celebrations.

Why is it so special to Swedes?

Nowadays Lucia has a special place in every Swede's heart. The most obvious reason for the importance of Lucia is because for Swedes, with very short hours of day light in the winter, the start of longer days is a cause for celebration.

But there may also be an important symbolism. We all need light in our hearts and Lucia brought light to the very poorest in the darkness in the catacombs. Only a century or so ago Sweden was very poor, with a fifth of the population emigrating to America for a better life. It was at that time that Lucia celebrations became very popular, so maybe Swedes found comfort in Lucia celebrations, even if only a subconscious level, hoping that their dark days will be replaced by lighter days.

Now that Sweden is a rich country, many Swedes think that it is their duty to bring light to others around the world, whose lives are not so fortunate. That may also explain why Sweden normally welcomes refugees from other countries.

What happens?

Lucia concert at Engelbrektskyrkan 2014

A girl wearing a white robe with a ribbon around her waist and a crown of white candles on her head sings a song while leading a procession. These days the ribbons are nearly always red, but originally they were green. The red now is said to be symbol of her martyrdom.

Who else is with her?

Lucia-Engel-310-0231

She is accompanied by her tärnor (maids), girls in white robes holding candles and with tinsel in their hair, stjärngossar (star boys) holding paper stars on a stick and wearing conical hats decorated with the star of Bethlehem and finally, bringing up the rear, are some tomtar (brownies or "elves").

What do they sing?

There are several Lucia carols, all with the same basic message, which when translated to English is something like:

The night treads heavily
around yards and dwellings
In place unreached by sun,
the shadows brood
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

All Swedes know the words by heart.

When did Swedes start celebrating Lucia?

The first recorded appearance of a white-clad Lucia was in 1764. The custom became firmly established by the beginning of the 20th century.

How is Lucia chosen now?

Most towns have competitions, run via local newspapers. Competition is tough. Each year a national Lucia is also chosen on TV.

Where is the best place to see a Lucia procession?

Globen-Lucia-570

Every town in Sweden has lots of Lucia processions in churches, schools, old folks' homes and offices. The best processions are normally in big churches or theatres with singing by church choirs or students from music schools. The best processions are quite simply stunning, but they often sell out quickly.

Lucia concert at Engelbrektskyrkan in Stockholm 2014

In Stockholm one of the best Lucia concerts is at Engelbrektskyrkan. It is held in a large and impressive church in a fashionable part of Stockholm. The music is outstanding and the accoustics are superb, but the view from the floor of the church is limited. Try and buy tickets in the front of the upstairs gallery if they are available, but you will need to be quick because the concert is always a sellout. More…

Another good place to see a Lucia procession is at Skansen, a large open-air museum and park in Stockholm. There are normally several concerts per day, but go early if you want a good seat. More…

Are there any Lucia processions outside of Sweden?

Yes, there are Lucia concerts all over the world.

Where in the UK?

The cover of a programme for Lucia at St Paul's Cathedral

In the UK, the Swedish Church in London organises Lucia concerts in St Paul's Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral and Ulrika Eleonora Swedish Church. Tickets are expensive, but they are always snapped up quickly. More…

Lucia celebrations in Birmingham

The Swedish Chamber of Commerce organise an excellent Lucia concert in Birmingham Cathedral. Tickets are free but be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before the start if you want a seat. More…

Lucia celebrations in Cheltenham

Svea, a Swedish restaurant in Cheltenham, also usually organises a Lucia procession and smörgåsbord, but you need to book early as they are always fully booked. More…

Is there any food and drink?

Saint Lucia buns

Lussekatter (Lucia's cats or saffron buns), glögg (mulled wine) and maybe some pepparkakor (gingersnaps) are offered at the end of the procession. The saffron buns are made into s-shapes, which is supposed to represent curled up cats. Each bun has two raisins which are supposed to represent eyes.

Why cats?

Nobody knows for sure. The name Lucia may also have been associated with Lucifer (Satan). In medieval Sweden, Lucia Night was thought to be a dangerous time when supernatural beings were out and all animals could speak! Livestock needed extra feed and people were urged to eat several hearty breakfasts to give them strength.

At that time, cats were believed to be agents of the devil! (This occurred not just in Sweden, but right across Europe. Anyone keeping a cat was suspected of being a witch and was put to death along with their feline pet. Cats were beaten, killed and driven away from towns and villages. In fact the domestic cat population of Europe came close to being wiped out.) Apparently, the buns were originally called djävulskatter (the devil's cats) and the s-shaped form was intended to represent a curled up cat. It makes some kind of sense!

Why two raisins?

According to some the raisins are the cats' eyes, but another explanation is that Saint Lucia's popularity grew during the Middle Ages and around the 1500s many religious images in Sweden began to depict her holding two eyes on a plate. Maybe the two things have been combined.

Why saffron?

Again, nobody knows for sure. It may simply be that the upper classes in Sweden liked to use saffron because it is the world's most expensive spice.

Is there anything else?

The last person to rise on Sankta Lucia morning was nicknamed Lusse the Louse and often given a playful beating round the legs with birch twigs. Don't worry, I don't think they do that any more.

More historical information

If you would like to know more about the origins of Lucia celebrations and lussekatter is recommend reading Maia Brindley Nilsson's excellent article: click here.

Unmissable

It may all sound pretty weird, but a Lucia celebration really is special and worth seeing! However, the best events sell out quickly, so book your tickets as soon as possible.

John Duxbury

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