Tradition has it that Lucia is to wear "light in her hair."
Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se
White gowns, stars and candles
The real candles once used are now battery-powered, but there is still a special atmosphere when the lights are dimmed and the sound of the children singing grows as they enter from an adjacent room.
Tradition has it that Lucia is to wear "light in her hair," which in practice means a crown of electric candles in a wreath on her head. Each of her handmaidens carries a candle, too. Parents gather in the dark with their new digital cameras at the ready.
The star boys, who like the handmaidens are dressed in white gowns, carry stars on sticks and have tall paper cones on their heads. The brownies bring up the rear, carrying small lanterns.
Competing to be Lucia
Competition for the role of Lucia can be tough. Each year, a national Lucia is proclaimed in one or other of the TV channels, while every town and village worth the name chooses its own Lucia. Candidates are presented in the local newspaper a couple of weeks in advance.
Staunchly opposed to privilege, Sweden has always sought to avoid ranking people, which is why beauty contests and "homecoming queen" events are rare. The Lucia celebration, however, has been an exception. Every year, local newspaper subscribers are invited to vote for one or other of the candidates.
You can no longer count on the blonde winning, although many a Miss Sweden has started out as the local Lucia. On Lucia Day, the winner is announced and is then driven around town, preferably in a horse-drawn vehicle of some kind, to spread light and song in food stores, factories, old-age homes and medical centres.
Saffron buns are consumed by the dozen on Lucia Day.
Photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se
Lucia — the bearer of light
Alongside Midsummer, the Lucia celebrations represent one of the foremost cultural traditions in Sweden, with their clear reference to life in the peasant communities of old: darkness and light, cold and warmth.
Lucia is an ancient mythical figure with an abiding role as a bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters.
The many Lucia songs all have the same theme:
The night treads heavily
around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun,
the shadows brood
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.
All Swedes know the standard Lucia song by heart, and everyone can sing it, in or out of tune. On the morning of Lucia Day, the radio plays some rather more expert renderings, by school choirs or the like.
The Lucia celebrations also include ginger snaps and sweet, saffron-flavoured buns (lussekatter) shaped like curled-up cats and with raisin eyes. You eat them with glögg or coffee.
The Feast of St Lucia, celebrated on December 13, starts the Christmas season. St Lucia is a symbol of light, marking the return of lighter days. Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se
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Po Tidholm is a freelance journalist and a critic with the Stockholm daily, Dagens Nyheter. Po Tidholm wrote the main sections about how we celebrate in Sweden today.
Agneta Lilja is a lecturer in ethnology at Södertörn University College, Stockholm. Agneta Lilja wrote the sections about the history of Swedish traditions and festivities.
The authors alone are responsible for the opinions expressed on this web page.
Translation: Stephen Croall/Lingon
Copyright: 2004 Agneta Lilja, Po Tidholm and the Swedish Institute. This text is published by the Swedish Institute on www.sweden.se.