Saint Lucy's Day or the Feast of St. Lucy (Santa Lucia, Saint Lucia or sometimes Lucia for short) is the Church feast day dedicated to Saint Lucy and is observed on December 13. Its modern day celebration is generally associated with Sweden, but is also observed in Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland (the Swedish speaking population), Malta, Italy, Bosnia, Bavaria and Croatia. In the United States it is celebrated in states with a large number of people of Scandinavian ancestry, often centered around church events.
In traditional celebrations, Saint Lucy comes as a young woman with lights and sweets. It is one of the few saint days observed in Scandinavia. In some forms, a procession is headed by one girl wearing a crown of candles (or lights), while others in the procession hold only a single candle each.
In Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Norway, and Finland, Lucy (called Lucia) it is venerated on December 13 in a ceremony where a girl is elected to portray Lucia. Wearing a white gown with a red sash and a crown of candles on her head, she walks at the head of a procession of women, each holding a candle. The candles symbolize the fire that refused to take St. Lucia's life when she was sentenced to be burned. The women sing a Lucia song while entering the room, to the melody of the traditional Neapolitan song Santa Lucia; the Italian lyrics describe the view from Santa Lucia in Naples, the various Scandinavian lyrics are fashioned for the occasion, describing the light with which Lucia overcomes the darkness. Each Scandinavian country has lyrics in their native tongues. After finishing this song, the procession sings Christmas carols or more songs about Lucia. A similar version occurs in Scandinavian communities and churches in the United States.
Some trace the "re-birth" of the Lucia celebrations in Sweden to the tradition in German Protestant families of having girls dressed as angelic Christ children, handing out Christmas presents. The Swedish variant of this white-dressed Kindchen Jesus, or Christkind, was called Kinken Jes, and started to appear in upper-class families in the 1700s on Christmas Eve with a candle-wreath in her hair, handing out candy and cakes to the children. Another theory claims that the Lucia celebration evolved from old Swedish traditions of “star boys” and white-dressed angels singing Christmas carols at different events during Advent and Christmas. In either case, the current tradition of having a white-dressed woman with candles in her hair appearing on the morning of the Lucia day started in the area around Lake Vänern in the late 1700s and spread slowly to other parts of the country during the 1800s.
In the Lucia procession in the home depicted by Carl Larsson in 1908, the oldest daughter brings coffee and St. Lucia buns to her parents while wearing a candle-wreath and singing a Lucia song. Other daughters may help, dressed in the same kind of white robe and carrying a candle in one hand, but only the oldest daughter wears the candle-wreath.
The modern tradition of having public processions in the Swedish cities started in 1927 when a newspaper in Stockholm elected an official Lucia for Stockholm that year. The initiative was then followed around the country through the local press. Today most cities in Sweden appoint a Lucia every year. Schools elect a Lucia and her maids among the students and a national Lucia is elected on national television from regional winners. The regional Lucias will visit shopping malls, old people's homes and churches, singing and handing out pepparkakor (ginger snaps).
There are now also boys in the procession, playing different roles associated with Christmas. Some may be dressed in the same kind of white robe, but with a cone-shaped hat decorated with golden stars, called stjärngossar (star boys); some may be dressed up as "tomtenissar", carrying lanterns; and some may be dressed up as gingerbread men. They participate in the singing and also have a song or two of their own, usually Staffan Stalledräng, which tells the story about Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, caring for his five horses.
A traditional kind of bun, Lussekatt ("St. Lucia Bun"), made with saffron, is normally eaten on this day.
Although St. Lucia's Day is not an official holiday in Sweden, it is a popular occasion in Sweden. The evening and night before (so called "Lusse-vigil") The Lucia Day is a notoriously noisy time. High school students often celebrate by partying all through the night. At many universities, students hold big formal dinner parties since this is the last chance to celebrate together before most students go home to their families for Christmas.
The Swedish lyrics to the Neapolitan song Santa Lucia have traditionally been either Natten går tunga fjät (The Night walks with heavy steps) or Santa Lucia, ljusklara hägring (Saint Lucy, bright mirage). There is also a modern version with easier text for children: Ute är mörkt och kallt (Outside it's dark and cold).
In 2008 there was some controversy over males as Lucia, with one male who was elected Lucia at a high school being blocked from performing, and another performing together with a female. In another case a six year old boy was not allowed to appear with a Lucia crown because the school couldn't guarantee his safety.
The Finnish celebrations have been historically tied to Swedish culture and the Finland-Swedes. The first records of St. Lucy celebrations in Finland are from 1898, and the first large celebrations came in 1930, a couple of years after the popularization of the celebrations in Sweden. The St. Lucy of Finland has been elected since 1949 and she is crowned in the Helsinki Cathedral. Local St.Lucy's are elected in almost every place where there is a Swedish populace in Finland. The Finnish-speaking population has also lately begun to embrace the celebrations.
In Denmark, the Day of Lucia (Luciadag) was first celebrated on December 13, 1944. The tradition was directly imported from Sweden by initiative of Franz Wend, secretary of Föreningen Norden, as an attempt "to bring light in a time of darkness”. Implicitly it was meant as a passive protest against German occupation during the Second World War but it has been a tradition ever since. Although the tradition is imported from Sweden, it differs somewhat in that the celebration has always been strongly centered on Christianity and it is a yearly local event in most churches in conjunction with Christmas. Schools and kindergartens also use the occasion to mark the event as a special day for children on one of the final days before the Christmas holidays, but it does not have much impact anywhere else in society.
There are also a number of additional historical traditions connected with the celebration, which are not widely observed. The night before candles are lit and all electrical lights are turned off, and on the Sunday closest to December 13 Danes traditionally attend church.
The Danish versions of the Neapolitan song clearly reflect its close connection to Christianity. The best known version is Holger Lissners version from 1982, Sankta Lucia.
The Lussinatt, the night of December 13, was largely forgotten in Norway at the beginning of the 20th century, though still remembered as an ominous night, and also celebrated in some remote areas. It was not until after World War II that the modern celebration of Lucia in Norway was imported from Sweden, and became adopted on a larger scale. It is now observed all over the country again.
Like the Swedish tradition, and unlike the Danish, Lucia is largely a secular event in Norway, and is observed in kindergartens and schools (often through secondary level). However, it has in recent years also been incorporated in the Advent liturgy in the Church of Norway. The boys are often incorporated in the procession, staging as magi with tall hats and star-staffs, and sometimes as elves. Occasionally, anthems of Saint Stephen are taken in on behalf of the boys.
For the traditional observance of the day, school children form processions through the hallways of the school building carrying candles, and hand out lussekatt buns. While rarely observed at home, parents often take time off work to sit in for the morning hours, and to be chosen Lucia, or sooner: Lucia-bride, is considered a great honor. Later on in the day, the procession usually visits retirement homes, hospitals, and nursing homes in the neighborhood.
In Saint Lucia, a tiny island in the Caribbean named after its patroness saint, St. Lucy, December 13th is known as Festival of Lights to honor St. Lucy Saint of Light. In this celebration, a tree is lit with decorative candles and crowds of people gather to watch. This is also to commemorate Christmas and the Christmas tree.
St. Lucy is the patron saint of the city of Syracuse (Sicily), where she was born. The main celebration occurs on the 13th of December and in May. St. Lucy is also popular among children in some regions of North-Eastern Italy, namely Trentino, East Lombardy (Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona and Mantua), some parts of Veneto, (Verona), some parts of Emilia-Romagna, (Piacenza, Parma and Reggio Emilia), and all Friuli, where she is said to bring gifts to good children and coal to bad ones. Children are asked to leave some food for Lucia (a sandwich, or anything else available at the moment) and for the flying donkey that helps her carry gifts (flour, sugar, or salt), but they must not see Santa Lucia delivering gifts, or she will throw ashes in their eyes, temporarily blinding them. In Sicily and among the Sicilian diaspora, cuccìa is eaten in memory of Saint Lucy's miraculous averting of famine.
Santa Luċija is the patron saint of the localities of Mtarfa (Malta) and Santa Luċija (Gozo). On the 13th December Malta also celebrates Republic Day.
In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which is the successor church to hundreds of Scandinavian and German Lutheran congregations, St. Lucia is treated as a commemoration on December 13th, in which red vestments are worn. Usually, the Sunday in Advent closest to December 13th is set aside for St. Lucia, in which the traditional Scandinavian procession is observed.
St. Lucy/Lucia is one of few saints celebrated by the overwhelmingly Lutheran Scandinavian peoples (Danes, Swedes, Finns and Norwegians). The St. Lucy's Day celebrations retain many indigenous Germanic pagan, pre-Christian midwinter elements, and the practices associated with the day, predates the adoption of Christianity in Scandinavia, and is like much of Scandinavian folklore, and even religiosity today, based on the annual struggle between light and darkness.
The Nordic observation of St. Lucy is first attested in the Middle Ages, and continued after the Protestant Reformation in the 1520s and 1530s, although the modern celebration is only about 200 years old. It is likely that tradition owes its popularity in the Nordic countries to the extreme change in daylight hours between the seasons in this region.
The pre-Christian holiday of Yule, or jól, was the most important holiday in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Originally the observance of the winter solstice, and the rebirth of the sun, it brought about many practices that remain in the Advent and Christmas celebrations today. The Yule season was a time for feasting, drinking, gift-giving, and gatherings, but also the season of awareness and fear of the forces of the dark.
Lussinatta, the Lussi Night, was December 13, and by the unreformed Julian calendar, the longest night of the year, coinciding with the Winter Solstice. Then Lussi, a female being with evil traits, like a female demon or witch, was said to ride through the air with her followers, called Lussiferda. This itself might be an echo of the myth of the Wild Hunt, called Oskoreia in Scandinavia, found across Northern, Western and Central Europe.
Between Lussi Night and Yule, trolls and evil spirits, in some accounts also the spirits of the dead, were thought to be active outside. It was believed to be particularly dangerous to be out during Lussi Night. According to tradition, children who had done mischief had to take special care, since Lussi could come down through the chimney and take them away, and certain tasks of work in the preparation for Yule work had to be finished, or else the Lussi would come to punish the household.
The tradition of Lussevaka – to stay awake through the Lussinatt to guard oneself and the household against evil, has found a modern form through throwing parties until daybreak.
Another company of spirits was said to come riding through the night around Yule, journeying through the air and over land and water, leaving eeriness and discomfort. It is tempting to look at Father Christmas’ journey with his reindeer as a commercial relic inspired by this superstition.
Although no sources of her life exist other than hagiographies, St. Lucy is believed to be an Italian saint who suffered a martyr's death under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in Syracuse, Sicily around 300 CE. In one of the stories, she was working to help Christians hiding in the catacombs, and in order to bring with her as many supplies as possible, she needed to have both hands free. She solved this problem by attaching candles to a wreath on her head. There is little evidence attributing this legend to the folklore of Medieval Scandinavia, but the similarities in the names ("Lussi" and "Lucia"), and the time of the year (St. Lucy’s feast day is December 13th) suggest a possible connection.
- Eriksson, Stig A. (2002). Christmas traditions and performance rituals: a look at Christmas celebrations in a Nordic context. 2002. Applied Theater Researcher. No. 3. 6/3
- Nygaard, J. (1992). Teatrets historie i Europa ("~ History in Europe"). Volume 1. Oslo: Spillerom.
- NRK radio (2002). Språkteigen. NRK radio. December 2002.
- Nordisk Familjebok, article Lucia Nordisk Familjebok, 1912 (Swedish)
- "A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy's Day," poem by John Donne (1572–1631)
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