Lucia – the festival of lights: a pre-christmas swedish custom

The night before 13. December, the day which is noted in all calendars with the name of St. Lucia, the city youth of Uppsala gathers at the Fyristorg, the weekly market place. Girls wear silvery glittering ribbons in their hair, in a semicircle they are woven similar to dainty princess crowns, and around the waists put decorative ribbons. The night echoes with the laughter and shouts of the people.

Cheers to the light bringer?

Many young people on the streets and squares of Uppsala get drunk. This is apparently their way of celebrating the Luciawache custom: by parading through the city in groups, bawling and boozing, and really letting off steam in the middle of Advent once again. Not much different from hundreds of years ago, at a time when the winter solstice was still celebrated rather crudely in village Sweden: With alcohol, pranks and brawls.

Saint Lucia of Syracuse

Why is Lucia celebrated in Sweden?

Lucia was a young woman from Italy who was executed in 304 for her Christian faith. She refused to marry her pagan fiance and became a martyr at the age of 20. The fact that she is still remembered in Sweden today is mainly due to her name: Lucia, meaning "The Shining One" (from lat. lux = light). The night before the thirteenth of December, Lucia’s death day, used to be the longest and darkest of the whole year. (At that time the faulty Julian calendar was still in use, not the Gregorian). And Lucia, the radiant, the light-bringer, whose day of remembrance coincidentally fell on the winter solstice, should symbolically usher in the days that are finally getting longer again.

In 1927, the first Swedish Lucia Queen of Lights was elected in Stockholm; meanwhile, in the minds of many Swedes, Lucia begins with St. Lucia really kicks off the Christmas season, and Luciadagen is now one of the most important Swedish holidays.

Burning hair

Swedish female students dress for Lucia celebration

On the morning of Lucia’s day, the thirteenth. December, I am unexpectedly awakened.

Even before seven o’clock, the bell jolts me out of my sleep. I quickly throw on some clothes and stroll down the hall while the bell is pressed twice more. Who may be? I’ve heard that the new Nobel Prize winners, who received their awards from the king’s hand in Stockholm only three days ago, are to be awakened by Lucifer girls – but that this honor is to be bestowed on ordinary students as well?

When I open the door, a crowd of young girls in white robes stream down the corridor; they carry candles and glitter ribbons. I recognize most of them, they are alto and soprano voices from our student choir. Ingela, also dressed in white, walks in front. Where yesterday her dark hair was still visible, now bright flames burn on her head and give her an almost holy glow. The candle wreath was fixed in the hair, over an invisible cover foil to catch the liquid wax.

Crown of candles – Lucia’s historic headlamp?

It is said that the historical Lucia carried candles on her head when she brought food and drink to persecuted Christians in her dark catacomb hiding places – she needed two free hands to do so. But today, in 2021, the burning candles on children’s heads have mostly given way to battery-powered electric replicas. This is, unfortunately, a loss for the festive spirit; but a gain for schools and kindergartens, where there is now less hot wax to remove from clothing and children’s hair.

Old Swedish words and blessings

Now the young women begin to sing their angelic polyphonic greeting in ancient, solemn language. Lucia herself doesn’t sing along – she tries to keep her head still to drip as little wax as possible:

"Goder morgon mitt herrskap! Hardness commercial Lussebrud. Hon nalkas till Eder med ara."
Good morning, my lord, here comes the Lucia bride, she approaches you with honor.

"Vi får onska Eder alla en frojdfull jul! Från alla olyckor bevare Eder Gud!"
We wish you all a merry Christmas, from all harm God forbid.

My Swedish beauties still offer me mulled wine (glogg) and a strange pastry, soft, yellowish doughnuts that tasted of saffron and raisins (lussekatter) – the "Lucia kittens. And before I am really awake, the laughing girls with their candles leave again to wait for further choir members. (→ Bake your own lussekatter! To the recipe.)

Each farm and school chooses its own Santa Lucia

Luciadagen – Lucia Day in Sweden

Swedish Lucia celebration in the church, Stockholm

Lucia trains appear all over the country today. There is no staff, no office, no school class that does not have "their Lucien Bride" chooses and Lucia celebrates.

A Saint Lucia should be quite pretty, it is agreed; but the question of hair color causes great difficulties every year. Should the chosen one now be radiant blond, so that she largely corresponds to the ideal of a Nordic beauty? Or is she supposed to be dark-haired, in memory of the historical Lucia, who as an Italian virgin was probably not straw-blond either??

The adult Swedes choose for this day a Lucia of the year, their beauty queen. And this custom continues downward to the youngest students, even into the preschool classes. In families, the eldest daughter gets the honor of playing Lucia.

Elsewhere there is fighting, hoping, voting. What a disappointment for a hopeful girl who is not allowed to be Lucia! The previous year it had been her best friend, robed in gleaming white, girded in red; and before that she had had to watch as the wreath of lights had been put on a new child in the class, and she had again been allowed to go only in the entourage: Forever a tarna, a candle-bearing maiden, the common one with the boys wearing pointed hats with glued-on stars (stjarngossar), walk as a procession behind Lucia.

A Swedish girl who was never allowed to be Lucia is probably permanently emotionally damaged and scarred for the rest of her teenage life ;-)

The longest and darkest night in Sweden

With the Hl. Lucia was celebrated the end of the longest and darkest night. Lucia was the sign that someday even this winter would give way to spring again.

But the longest night was yet to come: The winter solstice fell on the fourth of Advent this year, and the longest night of the year also marked the end of the fall semester.

The sun set a few minutes before three in the afternoon; and remained gone for eighteen hours. Only shortly after nine o’clock in the morning it appears again at the horizon and lights up the bald, snowless landscape.

Christmas in Sweden

All weather reports have confirmed that no snow is expected for Christmas in central Sweden this year, and all weathermen have been wrong. On the morning of the twenty-fourth, light flakes begin to fall, and in the forenoon the train driver wishes all passengers over the on-board loudspeaker."God Jul!", and when the commuter train from Uppsala arrives at Stockholm station after fifty minutes, the sidewalks and parks are covered with several centimeters of dry, fresh snow. How beautiful!

(Report of a German guest student to his parents)

Lucia celebration in the church in Stockholm

Every year on the morning of Lucia Day, Swedish television broadcasts a Lucia celebration from the church early at 7 a.m. In this video excerpt from the 2010 Lucia morning from Stockholm, other Swedish Christmas carols or. Lucial songs to hear.

The Luciachor sings these Christmas carols in our video clip:

  1. Sankta Lucia – Ljusklara hagring | Text from 1:16
  2. God morgon mitt herrskap (Luciavisa från Dalsland) | at 3:52
  3. Stig in Lucia stig in | at 6:38
  4. Bethlehems stjarna (Glans over sjo och strand) | at 8:15
  5. Bered en vag for Herran | at 11:20

How the Swedes celebrate Lucia!

A not-so-serious briefing on ancient Swedish customs:

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