Bringing light into the dark of winter: Saint Lucia Day in Sweden

St. Lucia copy
This pretty lady is this year’s Saint Lucia during the celebration in Domkyrkan, Växjö’s cathedral, Sweden.

Here in Sweden, what was long considered the darkest day of winter is celebrated during Advent as Saint Lucia day, commemorated on both the 12th and 13th of December each year by communities across the country.

Lucia, a young woman martyred in Roman-era, pre-Christian Sicily of 304 A.D., died a most horrendous death, although the stories about her demise vary. The violence of her death has become symbolic of the cosmic struggle between darkness and light.

The celebration of Santa Lucia was born from two separate traditions which, over time, were combined. The 13th of December used to be the winter solstice (midpoint of winter) according to the Julian calendar, and was therefore the longest night in the year. This night was a magical night filled with superstitions and evil, a night where people were advised to stay indoors and get on with Christmas preparations.

I'm a Catholic, and I don't understand why Protestant Sweden would want to commemorate this poor woman.
I’m a Catholic, and I don’t understand why Protestant Sweden would want to commemorate this poor martyred woman.

It’s a particularly interesting celebration, because although it remembers the martyred Christian saint, in Sweden, the emphasis is on the nature of the time of year itself. That St. Lucia is a Catholic (and Italian) saint seems to go without notice; what becomes important is the idea that Lucia brings the light during what would have been Yule, or the Solstice.

Saint Lucia day is an amalgamation of Christianity, paganism, and the modern desire to reconnect with the struggle against humanity’s ancient fear of the dark. In this ongoing struggle, Saint Lucia day perseveres, I think, because we need to be reassured that even on the darkest nights of the year, warmth and light will prevail. Saint Lucia’s day is celebrated, therefore, as what remains of ancient, pagan yule festivals.

It is speculated that the Swedish word ‘ljus,’ meaning ‘light,’ has become intertwined with Lucia’s name, that this is part of the reason for the acceptance of this saint in a Protestant country that ordinarily celebrates few saints’ days. Lucia stems from the Latin word for light, ‘lux,’ as does “Lucifer,” the light-bringer. ‘Lucifer’ was once the name for the bright morning star, the planet Venus, by the way.

The celebration I enjoyed at the local cathedral the other night was a glorious paean to Yule or the coming Solstice, with candles and lilting voices bringing light and happiness into the dark and cold of a snowy evening here in Sweden.

The night sky was clear and deepest inky-blue when the church-going community emerged after an hour or so of music, procession, and singing, from inside the warm, light-filled church. The comparison between the temperatures indoors and outdoors could not have been more obvious, and this reminded me why the celebration of solstice is so very important in northern climates.

The glorious voices that sing of bringing the light to the darkness remind us that there is hope for the new year, when the sun will shine again. Similarly, this passage from a John Donne poem about Saint Lucia pays homage to the end of one year and the beginning of the next:

You lovers,  for whose sake the lesser sun
    At this time to the Goat is run
    To fetch new lust, and give it you,
            Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s and the day’s deep midnight is.

Passing on the light
The singers line up on either side of the church (kyrka) and begin the ceremony by singing and passing on the light to one another.
They sing, and prepare to make their procession up the aisle of the church.
They sing, and prepare to make their procession up the aisle of the church.
A boy singer stands, waiting for his turn.
A boy singer stands, waiting for his turn.
One of the children's music teachers looks on.
One of the children’s music teachers looks on.
The choir sings beautifully. The entire ceremony was simple, with no elaborate head-dresses, just traditional costumes of white gowns and stocking-feet.
The choir sings beautifully. The entire ceremony was simple, with no elaborate head-dresses, just traditional costumes of white gowns and stocking-feet.
Meanwhile, a little girl discovers the beauty of the votive candle tree, made of glass.
Meanwhile, a little girl discovers the beauty of the votive candle tree, made of glass.
A closeup of the votive candle tree, complete with a little human figure inside its branches.
A closeup of the votive candle tree, complete with a little human figure inside its branches.

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