Saturday 13 December 2008

The Swedish celebration of St. Lucy

St. Lucy (283-304 AD) from Syracuse, is the patroness of the blind, having plucked her own eyes out. She also protects prostitutes regretting their unfortunate choice of career, this because she herself was condemned to work in a brothel.

Her name is derived from the word lux or lucis meaning light. She was an early Christian martyr. She consecrated her virginity to God, and would not marry the man her parents had promised her to. She did, however, send him her own eyes, after having removed them herself, which is why she is often depicted with a pair of eyes on a plate. Our Lady then gave her a new pair of eyes, even more beautiful than the ones she'd had before.

It is said that before her death she was attacked in the most horrifying of ways; she was drenched in burning oil, but was not hurt; she had a sword thrust through her neck, but survived just until recieving the Last Rites.

St. Lucy is one of the few saints celebrated in lutheran Sweden. The night of her feast day, the 13th of December - roughly half way through advent - was, during the middle ages, according to the Julian calendar, the winter solstice - the longest night of the year. This changed, however, with the conversion to the Gregorian calendar in 1753.

On the evening of the 12th, a popular custom is to have a Lussevaka - Lucy wake - staying up all night and preparing for the feast of St. Lucy. At dawn on the 13th, groups of young people, dressed in white and carrying candles, used to go from door to door singing, and, for this, getting treats or money. Nowadays, this tradition is kept alive in schools and universities by early morning choir performances, and by children singing to their parents, and bringing them breakfast. This is what goes on in the picture here to the left, painted by Carl Larsson, Sweden's most famous painter.

Treats may include lussekatter - Lucy cats - a kind of saffron bun made especially for St. Lucy's day, but often enjoyed throughout Advent, along with ginger bread and coffee or mulled wine. The bun comes in many different shapes, the one to the right here being the most popular. A more luxurious kind is stuffed with marzipan.

The celebration of St. Lucy in Sweden is very much a part of the preparation for Christmas and many of the songs sung during the celebrations are, indeed, Christmas carols. Often, little children will dress up as little house gnomes or ginger bread men while taking part in the celebrations.

In the video below is a girls' choir, dressed up in the customary St. Lucy dresses, and singing the St. Lucy song. There are several versions of the lyrics to this song, but they all describe how St. Lucy brings light into the dark and prepares us for Christmas.

The girl with the candles in her hair is the one representing St. Lucy. Being chosen for this is an honour and there are usually elections and preparations months in advance to get the perfect Lucy.

Another Saint often mentioned during the St. Lucy celebrations is St. Stephen, who even has his own song sung during the St. Lucy festivities. He is rarely mentioned here in Sweden, though, on his proper feast day - the 26th of December.

St. Stephen is sometimes referred to as the protomartyr, since he was the first Christian to be martyred. He was stoned to death in 35 AD. In Swedish tradition he is very closely connected with horses, like a stable boy, and this is also the theme of the St. Stephen's song; "Staffan var en stalledräng, vattnade sina fålar fem, för den ljusa stjärna" - "Stephen was a stable boy, he watered his five horses, for the bright shining star."

Why the tradition of celebrating St. Lucy's day has survived for so long in lutheran Sweden, where so many other Saints and religious practices are now, by most, forgotten, is not easy to say. Some will explain it as the longing for light during the dark season in a dark country. Others say that the St. Lucy celebrations are a Christian excuse to celebrate the winter solstice, a somewhat more pagan tradition.


Anonymous said...

I watched the St. Lucia celebrations on tv as I have had sinus problems and wasn't up to walking in the snow with my son to see the celebrations at my hubby's workplace. I love this time of the year!

God bless, from Sweden,

Anonymous said...

Do you still celebrate Name Days? It would be nice to have two "birthdays". How are they celebrated? Do you exchange gifts? What are the gifts?

Rathlin Child said...

I'm really interested in Name Days. The French Kings used to celebrate their Name Day kind of like an official birthday that was celebrated today by Trooping the Colour in London. I would be interested in hearing how these Name Days are celebrated too. Do the Kings of Sweden celebrate an official Name Day too? Is it always the personal name or the regnal name or is it the same official day in each reign?