In darkest December, the night is enlightened by what many first time spectators consider a fairy-like creature. It is Lucia who, with her escort of singing girls and boys, symbolically opens the door to Christmas. The Swedish Lucia celebration is a good example of an annual festival of medieval origin which has acquired a new content.
Named after a Sicilian saint, the Swedish Lucia does not have much in common with her namesake. She is celebrated in a variety of ways but the most common is the Lucia procession consisting of a group of young girls and boys singing traditional Lucia songs.
On her head, the girl playing the part of Lucia wears a wreath of lingonberry sprigs with holders for real candles (battery powered ones are sometimes a safer option) to give the effect of a halo. She also has a white, full-length chemise with a red ribbon round her waist. Her female attendants are dressed similarly and the “star boys” wear white pointed hats decorated with stars. Lucia processions are held in various places, ranging from kindergartens and schools to Churches and the Swedish Parliament.
Lucia can be perceived as a symbol of the good forces in life and a symbol of light in the dark winter. She mostly appears early in the morning, bringing coffee and “lussekatter”, a kind of saffron-flavored bun eaten around Christmas time in Sweden.
The Lucia tradition can be traced back in time both to St Lucia of Syracuse, a martyr who died in 304, and to the legend of Lucia, Adam’s first wife. It is said that she consorted with the Devil and her children were invisible infernals. Thus the name may be associated with both lux (light) and Lucifer (Satan), and its origins are difficult to determine. The present custom appears to be a blend of traditions.
In the old almanac, Lucia Night was the longest of the year. It was a dangerous night when supernatural beings were abroad and all animals could speak. By morning, when they were said to have bitten the manger three times out of hunger, the livestock needed extra feed.
People, too, needed extra nourishment and were urged to eat between seven or nine hearty breakfasts. This kind of feasting presaged the Christmas fast, which began on Lucia Day.
The last person to rise that morning was nicknamed ‘Lusse the Louse’ and often given a playful beating round the legs with birch twigs. The slaughtering and threshing was supposed to be over by Lucia and the sheds to be filled with food in preparation for Christmas.
In agrarian Sweden, young people used to dress up as Lucia figures (lussegubbar) that night and wander from house to house singing songs and scrounging for food and schnapps.
The first recorded appearance of a white-clad Lucia in Sweden was in a country-house setting in 1764. The custom did not become universally popular in Swedish society until the 20th century, when schools and local associations in particular began promoting it.
The old lussegubbar custom virtually disappeared with urban migration, and white-clad Lucias with their singing processions were considered a more acceptable, controlled form of celebration than the youthful carousals of the past. In 1927, Stockholm proclaimed its first Lucia.
The custom whereby Lucia serves coffee and special cat-shaped buns (lussekatter) dates back to the 1880s, although the buns were around long before that.
Sweden is an egalitarian place these days, so any child can be chosen as Lucia for the annual procession at the local daycare centre, not just pretty ones with long blonde hair. The boys usually prefer to be brownies (tomtar) or ‘star boys’ (stjärngossar) in the procession, while quite a few girls agree to be Lucia’s handmaidens (tärnor).
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.
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, saffronflavoured buns (lussekatter) shaped like curled-up cats and with raisin eyes. You eat them with glögg or coffee.
200 g (7 oz) brown sugar
200 g (7 oz) white sugar
200 g (7 oz) dark corn syrup
150 ml (¾ cup) water
300 g (10 oz) butter
2 tbs ground cinnamon
2 tbs ground ginger
2 tbs ground cloves
1 tbs baking soda
0.9–1 kg (2?2¼ lb) flour
To make gingersnaps, heat the brown sugar, white sugar, corn syrup and water in a pot. Add the butter and let it melt. Stir and let cool slightly, then blend in the spices and baking soda. Then mix in the flour to a smooth consistency. Sprinkle a little flour on top and put the dough out to cool, preferably overnight. Take the dough and knead it smooth on a baking table, adding more flour if desired. Roll it thin and cut into shapes, using the desired cookie cutters. Bake in the oven (180 degrees C/350 degrees F) for 8–10 minutes. Let the gingersnaps cool on the baking sheet.
Saffron bun recipe
3 g (1/8 oz) saffron threads
50 g (2 oz) yeast
200 g (7 oz) sugar
300 ml (1½ cup) milk
150–200 g (5–7 oz) butter
1 tsp salt
750 g (26 oz) flour
100 g (3½ oz) raisins
2 tbs water
To make “Lucia cats” (lussekatter), grind the saffron along with a cube of sugar, using a mortar and pestle. (For those who think ahead: drip a little cognac on top, and let stand a few days.) Crumble the yeast in a bowl and stir in a few tablespoons of milk. Melt the butter and pour on the milk. Add the rest of the ingredients, except the raisins, and knead the dough in a dough mixer for 10 minutes.
Carefully mix in most of the raisins, cover the dough and let it rise for 30 minutes at room temperature. Divide the dough into 25 pieces and roll the buns in an oblong shape, about 10 cm (4 in) long. Cover them and let rest for 10 minutes, then roll them twice as long and twist the ends of each bun in opposite directions to form a sort of figure 8. Put one raisin in the middle of each half figure 8. Place on a greased baking sheet and let rise under a towel for about 90 minutes, or until the buns have doubled in size. Bake in the oven (220 degrees C/425 degrees F) for 5 minutes. Beat together the egg and water, brush the mixture on the buns. Allow to cool on the baking sheet.
Partly source:Lucia and Christmas — a sacred season in secular Sweden