Swedish Lucia – a light that never goes out

According to meteorologists, Stockholm has had ZERO hours of sunlight in December. The rest of the country hasn’t been much better. Thankfully, tomorrow, 13 Dec, is Santa Lucia Day in Sweden. At this darkest time of the year, Santa Lucia (St Lucy) pays us a visit early in the morning. Lucia has candles in her hair and is surrounded by her handmaidens and boys, and shines much-needed light into the dark depths of our tired souls. And slowly, slowly, the day awakens.

Santa Lucia is believed to have been a Sicilian saint who suffered a martyr’s death in Syracuse, Sicily around AD 310. She was seeking help for her mother’s long-term illness at the shrine of Saint Agnes, in her native Sicily, when an angel appeared to her in a dream beside the shrine. As a result of this, Lucia became a devout Christian and refused to compromise her virginity in marriage. Officials threatened to drag her off to a brothel if she did not renounce her Christian beliefs, but were unable to move her, even with a thousand men and fifty oxen pulling. So they stacked materials for a fire around her instead and set light to it, but she would not stop speaking. One of the soldiers stuck a spear through her throat to stop her, but to no effect. Soon afterwards, the Roman consulate in charge was hauled off to Rome on charges of theft from the state and beheaded. Lucia was able to die only when she was given the Christian sacrement.

The tradition of Santa Lucia is said to have been brought to Sweden via Italian merchants and the idea of lighting up the dark appealed so much that the tradition remained. The current custom 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 18th century and spread slowly to other parts of the country during the 19th century. 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 schools select a Lucia among the students. This is usually a girl, but on occasion boys have been elected. This sidestep from tradition has caused conservatives to foam at the mouth.

The Lucias visit shopping malls, old people’s homes and churches, singing and handing out gingerbread. This year, of course, things will be different. Concerts have been cancelled, or will be broadcast digitally, and any physical Lucia visits will be carried out with appropriate social distance, and probably outdoors.

So, it might be a dark time in human history, and it is certainly dingy outside, but remember – after darkness comes the light. And this year, we need it more than ever.

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