Back
Scandinavian Christmas starts early
Dec 12, 2013
In much of Scandinavia, Christmas starts December 13 — St. Lucia’s Day.
Also called, “The Festival of Lights,” St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden begins with a singing procession led by a young girl dressed as the saint. Other girls, also in white and wearing lighted wreaths on their heads, follow her.
Boys were once excluded but now often form part of the parade although they don’t wear wreaths.
The lighted wreaths are part of St. Lucia’s story. She needed both hands free when she carried food to Christians hiding in the dark Roman catacombs, so she fixed candles into a wreath on her head. The lights carry an important message. They bring hope and light during the darkest time of the year.
This is very much a family day. Families gather for coffee and baked goodies including lussekatter (saffron buns) and pepparkakor (gingerbread).
As we often find, the Christian St. Lucia’s Day emerged from a pagan celebration. In winter, the ancient Norse observed the winter solstice with bonfires to ward off evil spirits and also, hopefully, to change the course of the sun. When they adopted Christianity around AD 1000, they imposed St. Lucia’s story on the pagan rituals.
Customs now associated with the day are considered modern. The public parade began only in 1927, although the annual election of a St. Lucia dates to the 1700s. Many towns and villages still cling to private family processions.
In Finland, such observations date only to1898 and, until recently, were celebrated mainly by Swedes living in Finland.
Denmark began to mark St. Lucia’s Day even later, in 1944. Imported from Sweden as a protest against German occupation, the custom was hailed as a way “to bring light in a time of darkness.” The idea caught on and became Danish tradition.
The Danes added innovations. On St. Lucia’s Eve, only candlelight is used. In fact, electricity is turned off.
St. Lucia was ignored in Norway until after the Second World War. Now, it’s observed in much the same way as in Sweden.
Iceland has 13 Santas known as Jolasveinar (Yuletide Lads). The first of these arrives on St. Lucia’s Eve followed daily by one of the others. After Christmas, one-by-one, they leave. In general, Icelanders don’t observe a festival of lights.
The tiny Caribbean island, St. Lucia, celebrates its patron’s day with lights, including decorated lanterns. The day ends with a big fireworks display.
Swedes have carried St. Lucia’s Day customs to the many countries they’ve emigrated to, including Canada.
St. Lucia (St. Lucy), who was martyred in AD 304, wasn’t Scandinavian. Born in Sicily, she was denounced as a Christian during Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians because she refused to marry. She was sentenced to be violated in a brothel but the Roman soldiers, who for some reason, were not strong enough to lift her. She was then ordered burned alive, but the flames failed to harm her. Finally, she was stabbed through the throat and her eyes were gouged out.
Lucy, from the Latin lux, means “light; bringer of light.”
As well as being patron saint of Saint Lucia, she’s also the patron of 12 cities, including Syracuse, Venice, and Mantua in Italy, and Toledo, Spain. Forty-two categories of people, especially the blind, claim her as patron. She is the patron of optometrists and ophthalmologists, as well.
The well-known song, Santa Lucia,  commemorates her. All Scandinavian countries have separate versions — different words, same tune.
Yes. Scandinavians get a head start re Christmas, and they also keep celebrating through to Epiphany (January 6). Gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, and feasting continues throughout the entire season.
So, as the Swedes say, God Jul (Merry Christmas)!