Monday, December 15, 2014

Swedish Holidays - Lucia

Last Friday I was last in a line of people who were all carrying a live candle with glittery, silver boas wrapped around their head. It was performance art. Kind of. I found myself in a choir full of PhD students singing to a recently defended PhD. And because ‘tis the season, we held candles.

The flame whispered in front of me as I was overtaken by the holiday spirit. I belted out every note with the voice of an angel. It was glorious. A warm glow descended over me as the music transported me further and further away from this temporal world.

And then I realized I should probably unlock my knees because a couple glasses of wine and the heat of the candle was going to turn me into a stereotype. Because right around December 13th, people everywhere begin dropping like those cute little goats who just tip right over when they get panicked. There are plenty of explanations out there. Some people say the tiny little candle steals all the oxygen (science says that isn’t true). Some people say it’s hard to stand that long (retail workers say toughen up, half an hour is nothing). Some people say it’s too much partying (college students say that’s ridiculous). Some people say it’s a combination of heat, nerves, and standing (and by some people, I mean scientists say that, which must mean it is true). Either way, people are fainting a lot this time of year.
Don't worry. They're just stjärngossar. We think...
Picture from Mölndals stadsmuseum via
"Stjärngossar: fr.v Rune Lindh, Karl-Erik Andersson,
Lucia: Ulla Hultsten..." by Greta Bengtsson is licensed
under CC BY 2.5 SE. This is such a long caption.
Citations are hard.
That’s because December 13 is Lucia in Sweden. Lucia is a lovely holiday—a holiday that involves a crown of candles upon a person’s head, choir-like singing, a parade of people dressed as miniature KKK members with stars upon their hoods, and baked goods. Obviously. It’s going to get a bit nerdy from here on out. Proceed with caution.

The holiday combines some Pagan traditions with some Christian traditions and, voila, Swedes eat baked goods while watching people faint in a choir.

There’s plenty to be found about Lucia, most of it hard to pin down because of those pesky hagiographies. She was Italian. Born around 283, dead around 304 (or maybe a few years later). She might have had her eyes gouged out. She might have been stabbed in the throat by a spear. She might have been burned alive. Either way, she was definitely viewed as a Christian martyr now celebrated as a Catholic saint. That just so happens to be super popular in Protestant Sweden.

December 13 was thought to be the longest night of the year and darkness needs to be beaten back with light. Then Greg changed it for everyone back in 1582. Suddenly the longest night of the year was moved. But have no fear; Lucia is here! Her feast day just happened to fall on December 13, which was super handy because before, and even after that meddling Pope changed the calendar, Swedes were paying attention to that date. It just so happened that it was a time when super scary things were out tormenting folks. Plus, Christmas was coming and so the pig had to be slaughtered and the feast had to be prepared. So the Christian and the Pagan came together, as it so often did in perfect harmony with no blood lost and smiles and hugs all around. That’s how that story usually goes, right?

No word if this woman fainted or not.
Kustflottans Lucia 1942, frk Ingegärd Hägg.
So we get lights and candles, songs and a Saint, food and drink and all the good stuff needed to banish evil whence it came. Anyway, the tradition remained, for the most part, a somewhat rural one that was especially regional and celebrated around Lake Vänern throughout the 1800s. But you know about it, and chances are you haven’t spent a whole lot of time around Lake Vänern. I know I haven’t.

Luckily, students are surprisingly good bearers of traditions. They helped spread the holiday to Uppsala and Lund around the 1850s when they headed off to University. By the 1890s, Lucia had made its way to Stockholm with a little help from Skansen and became viewed as particularly “Swedish” and not just provincial by folks outside of Sweden. That's partly because Skansen was starting to be viewed as a place to maintain and preserve Swedishness (which gets super complicated and still is complicated today). By 1920, the holiday was a big deal and Swedes throughout the country began to celebrate. It was around this time that the stjärngossar became the dominant figure behind Lucia. For a while, there was some competition between the star boys, the baker, and the chimney sweep, but those hats must have given them the edge. In 1927, Stockholms Dagblad, a now-defunct newspaper, held a competition to crown Lucia and the tradition has continued to this day. Now, schools, cities, and, of course, Skansen, continue to crown a Lucia each year.

Today, a Lucia procession involves a Lucia walking in a white dress with red sash and a crown of light upon her head, singing. Tärnor (12 of them if you're aiming for a religious ceremony), dressed in white, sometimes wearing a sash, sometimes not, sometimes wearing a sort of wreath upon their heads, sometimes not. Stjärngossar, also dressed in white and wearing those cone hats, and sometimes even a tomte or two will follow behind. If you're really lucky and watching a bunch of kids do this, you might even see a pepparkaksgubbe or pepparkaksgumma. All the while, songs are sung, pepparkakor or lussebullar are handed out, coffee or glögg are drunk, and merriment is made.

Usually that crown of lights are electric lights. Usually. Sometimes, they are live candles and the brave soul underneath it has a towel draped over their head. You know, just in case.

It’s also tradition at this time of year to get upset if a, gasp, male is voted or wants to become Lucia. That’s when people start blah blah blahing about tradition and blah blah blah. First, never use tradition as an argument. Yes, you. Don’t do it. It’s a terrible argument. Traditions change. A lot. Second, there are plenty of examples of men playing the role of Lucia in the 1800s and early to mid-1900s. If a group of school kids vote a boy as Lucia, and said Lucia wants to be Lucia, let him. Don’t get frumpy if a male plays the role of Lucia.

Welcome to Sweden. And Italian Saints in Sweden.

P.S. This holiday also exists in the US. Kind of. It's celebrated in Swedish-American communities throughout the United States. There's probably one near you. Check it out if you can.

P.P.S. There are so very many sources to go to for more information about this. If you speak Swedish, just Ask Jeeves it. If you don’t, check out Wikipedia or Larry Danielson’s article “St. Lucia in Lindsborg, Kansas.”



  2. Yeah, I was just going to say that you forgot tärnorna! How horrible of you! I would say that tärnor are more common than stjärngossar behind Lucia. Also, in schools it's common that some children dress up as pepparkaksgubbar too :)
    One of the worst things about being an adult is that I can't join in my school's luciatåg with my friends anymore. Such sadness.

  3. Gah! I am horrible. You are right, they are absolutely more common. They're just not nearly as weird to my American sensibilities. Fixing that omission now. Sorry everyone!