The Swedes are wholly into Christmas traditions but less so the holy origins of them. Yet, Saint Lucia, the star of Bethlehem, Advent candles and even the church remain sacred to the secular Swedes in December.
Swedes celebrate Lucia from an early age — even if the hat doesn't always fit... Photo: Matton
The perennial traditions of the Christmas season in Sweden, like in many other countries, are deeply rooted in Christianity. And despite the Swedes’ famously secular self-image, these rituals remain close to their hearts.
The symbol of light is particularly pertinent because the country is at its darkest time of the year. The sales of Advent stars rocket; what is a reminder of the star of Bethlehem can also act as a universal window adornment when the night sky closes in early afternoon.
Lucia lights up the dark
The Swedish Lucia is a bearer of light, literally. Candles are her customary headgear, and on December 13, the whole country is lit up as Swedes mark Lucia Day, a day associated with the Italian martyr, Saint Lucia. Many Lucia events stay true to tradition with Lucia donning real candles in her hair, although a switch to a battery-powered version is increasingly common.
The white-clad Lucia brings her choral entourage, a sprinkling of joy, a sensation of light and, more practically, coffee and saffron buns (see the recipe on the right) to her audience. Legend has it that the original saint helped poor and needy Christians by bringing them food and drink.
Candles are must-have accessories in Swedish homes. In December four advent candles are often lit, one at a time, in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. Advent is also the time to switch on the electric candlestick, a popular Swedish ornament, usually with seven candles set in pyramid form, which was actually invented by a Swede, Oscar Andersson, in 1934.
One candle is lit for each December week leading up to Christmas. Photo: Matton
Religion in secular Sweden
Valerie DeMarinis, professor of psychology of religion at Uppsala University, looks at the origins of Swedish traditions. “Swedish culture has religion as part of its heritage,” she says. “It was only in 2000 that the church separated from the state, so these symbols, rituals and traditions have permeated through generations.”
DeMarinis quotes from a recent World Value Survey that only around five percent of Swedes believe religion is important. “But as secularized as Sweden is, Christian symbols still dominate, especially at Christmas. There is a basic human need for symbols and rituals and people will engage in them so long as it provides meaning, whether it be religious or not.”
Lucia goes back to its roots
In the seasonal spirit of goodwill, the Swedish Lucia (Sveriges Lucia) competition is making a comeback for the first time since 2000.
Previously, the contest was a type of beauty pageant, hence its politically-incorrect demise. But now, the focus is on compassion to those less fortunate. The candidates are matched up with charitable organizations and work as ambassadors to promote their cause.
Swedish Lucia candidate Li Melander from Stockholm is happy that Lucia is one of few remaining Christmas traditions that has not been commercialized. “Lucia helped the poor and lonely people and you could say, even though it’s not religious, it’s fitting that the Swedish Lucia competition is going back to its roots,” she says.
The Advent star lights up Swedish homes in dark December. Photo: Matton
Religion or tradition
Priest Martin Modéus from the Stockholm Diocese is the author of the book Tradition och Liv
(Tradition and Life), which attempts to break borders between religion and secularism. Although there is little room for religion the rest of the year, Swedes do find solace in the church come December. “The first Advent Sunday is the single day when most Swedes go to church,” Modéus says.
One of the church-goers is Madeleine Holst. “The whole meaning of Advent is about expectancy and waiting,” she says. “If I wasn’t a Christian, maybe it wouldn’t matter so much, but I do think about what it means.”
For Staffan Thorsell, Christmas is a strictly non-sacred affair. “Swedes go to church at Christmas because it’s beautiful and they enjoy the atmosphere, the music and the choirs,” he says. “It’s about tradition rather than religion.”
Christmas mass en masse
It is clear that while statistics from the Church of Sweden show attendance is dropping year on year, churches are often packed for carol concerts and special services throughout December. But it is not necessarily a leap of faith, Modéus says.
“When Swedes watch Lucia, they see light in the darkness — is that religious?” he says. “It’s the whole essence of Christianity. And if it makes something happen in your heart, or it becomes a time to reflect, that’s another way of meeting the gospel.”
According to Modéus, one of the problems in Sweden’s secular society is that people don’t necessarily stop believing in God, they just don’t talk about it anymore. Especially not at Christmas, it seems.
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Christine Demsteader is a British freelance writer who has been living in Stockholm for the past six years. She rues the fact she is too old to be crowned Lucia and, religion aside, is still coming to terms with celebrating Christmas in Sweden on December 24 rather than 25.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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