One of the very few Scandinavian traditions which I like to keep alive to some extent after our move from Sweden to the UK (almost two years ago now) is the yearly ‘Lucia’ celebrations on 13 December, also known as ‘St Lucy’s Day’.
WHAT IS IT?
In short, celebrating Lucia consists of watching or participating in singing processions, where one girl is the ‘Lucia’ and leads the procession, wearing a crown of candles. She’s followed by other girls carrying candles in their hands, ‘star boys’ wearing white pointed hats (yep…) and often holding wands with stars on, and sometimes there will be (children, mostly) dressed up as Santas and gingerbread men as well. Apart from the two latter characters, everyone is in a long white dress, and the Lucia always wears a red band around her waist (while the other girls can wear either red bands or silver tinsel).
These Lucia processions take place in churches, schools, pre-schools, shopping centers, retirement homes, hospitals, offices etc. The effect of all the candles involved (especially when real candles are used rather than the safer but not quite as beautiful electric version) is best in the dark, so the best time to watch a procession is either early in the morning or after dark in the afternoon (though if you’re in Northern Scandinavia, it’ll be dark pretty much all day anyway). If you don’t feel like catching a procession IRL first thing in the morning, there’s always one broadcasted on national tv.
Saffron buns and gingerbread biscuits are traditionally served in connection with these processions, as is ‘Glögg’, which is mulled wine, or mulled fruit drink for children or anyone who doesn’t feel like starting the day with a cup of hot booze.
This short video I’ve found on YouTube is a pretty good introduction to it all:
WHY IS LUCIA CELEBRATED LIKE THIS IN SCANDINAVIA?
Well, this isn’t totally straight forward. The video above hinted at some of the background, but from what I’ve read and heard form various sources (such as researchers in the history of Swedish traditions), Lucia is the result of a great mix of traditions coming together and evolving throughout time.
There were old pagan rituals celebrating the return of light at Winter solstice, which used to fall around the 13 December in the Julian Calendar, which was used in Sweden until 1753. This meant that when the country became christianised, during the Middle Ages, the old pagan celebrations of light at Winter solstice often coincided with the Christian day of celebration for the Italian Saint Lucia/Lucy, who’s day of death was on 13 December (all Christian saints were celebrated/remembered on their day of death, and honoring the saints on their day in the calendar was an important part of Christianity in the Middle Ages, and remains fairly important to many Catholics). Also, the name Lucy/Lucia means roughly ‘bringer of light’, stemming from the latin word for light, ‘Lux’.
In addition to this, there was apparently a belief that the night of the 13 December was somehow connected with Lucifer (the devil), and that evil spirits were roaming the earth on this very night (this was probably linked to it being Winter solstice, the longest night of the year). To protect themselves, some people would stay awake all night. And, mainly in the Western parts of Sweden, groups of men would dress up and roam around the countryside all night, waking peolpe up and asking them for breakfast and a drink.
The format of the Lucia processions as they are in Sweden nowadays, has only really developed over the last Century or so. They’re usually a beautiful, calm and peaceful event, although perhaps less so at pre-schools, as I doubt anything involving herds of excited toddlers could truthfully be described as “beautiful, calm and peaceful”.
Penguin’s previous experiences of Lucia processions have not always been the best. When he was around 21 months old, he was going to take part in his first procession, at the pre-school he was attending at the time. We’d got him a little Gingerbread Man outfit, which he’d quite happily tried on at home, and he looked super cute in it (I’m partial, but he did). We’d been practising the moves they were doing to the ‘Tip-Tap’ song and Penguin seemed geared up for the occassion. I was SO excited about it, but when we arrived at Penguin’s pre-school, extra early in the morning for this special event, it soon became clear that our little boy was not happy at all with this. In hindsight, I can see that it was probably extremely upsetting for him that nothing was as usual there, that all the lights were switched off, that all the other kids as well as some of the teachers were wearing strange outfits, and that they were cramming all the children into one room from where the procession would start, while all the parents went to take a seat in another room. This was a long time before Penguin got his autism diagnosis, and we were surprised and a bit chocked at how upset he got. So, he didn’t go in the procession, but sat on my lap and watched it.
However, the last procession he watched live before our move to the UK was a really enjoyable experience. It was held in a church next to his school, and we just sat down and watched some of the older children perform. It went really well and Penguin seemed perfectly happy about the whole thing.
(The photos above are of me, aged 3 and 4, putting on Lucia performances at home. Pics taken by grandad.)
LUCIA AT HOME, IN THE UK
So, in our small-scale Lucia celebrations at home, my aim is to recreate that peaceful and slightly mystical feeling which a good Lucia procession can bring. It should be a kind of warm and glowing multisensory delight, including lights, sounds, scents and flavours. With that in aim, these will be the ingredients for our Lucia celebrations – and perhaps yours too, if you feel like giving this a try:
- Candles. An absolute necessity for Lucia! The more the better, pretty much. If you’re feeling creative, make some table decorations using natural materials such as moss, fir, holly, or even lingonberry plants, arranged around your candles. Be careful not to set things on fire though. When real candles are used in Lucia processions, there’s usually a bucket of water on stand-by. If you have a fire extinguisher and a fire blanket, that’s even better.
- Saffron Buns (‘Lussebullar’ or ‘Lussekatter’ in Swedish). It’s not really Lucia without these golden lovelies and their unmistakable scent of saffron. Ideally they should be freshly baked, but if you warm them up carefully in the oven or microwave, that’ll be almost as good.
- Glögg (mulled wine/mulled fruit drink). We’ve found that Ikea sells a ‘Vintersaga’ glögg for a very reasonable price, so that’s what will be in our cups. (They’ve actually got a whole little range of Scandinavian festive snacks and drinks, also including saffron buns if you can’t find time to make your own. Just go to their site and put ‘Vintersaga’ in the search bar.)
- Gingerbread. This will normally be in the form of what is sometimes called ‘Ginger Thins’, which is basically very thin ginger biscuits. Buy them or make your own! Some of the most common shapes, other than the gingerbread man, is gingerbread women, hearts, stars, angels, pigs and goats.
- Lucia Procession. Now this might seem like cheating, but what we do is simply watch a recording, such as the one below. I’ll be singing along here and there, but I won’t be gliding around in a white gown with candles in my hair. I did more than my fair share of Lucia processions as a child, and now I just want to relax and enjoy watching others making the effort!
(A little note about this recording: It’s been heavily shortened, as the performances by more famous solo artists have been edited out. But to be honest, this covers the amount of time which Penguin will happily sit still with his mulled drink and buns etc, so it’s the perfect lenght for us. Just in case you’re dying for more, I’ll add another link at the bottom of this post. Also, a few minutes in, there’s a man who comes on to tell us very briefly about the legend of Saint Lucy. If you don’t wish to practise your ‘hurdy-gurdy’ talk, you can scroll forward to the next song, which begins at 6:37.)
So, now you know the hows and whys of celebrating Lucia, Scandi-style. Will you be joining in on the 13 December…? 🕯
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