What is the history of the Italian Saint Lucia, and why is it celebrated in Sweden? How is it celebrated? What does a S:t Lucia progression look like? Learn all about this unique Swedish holiday celebration and find out where to watch this year’s annual procession during Corona.
Lucia was, according to history, an Italian virgin who lived in Sicily around 200 AC. She was born into a wealthy family and was a devoted Christian. Her mother promised her hand in marriage, but Lucia managed to delay the engagement by praying to God to help her. When her mother became fatally ill, they met with the saint Agata, who declared that Lucia’s faith would cure her mother’s illness. Sure enough, the mother recovered and promised Lucia she wouldn’t have to marry. The fiancé-to-be was insulted and gave her name to the emperor Diocletianus, who persuaded Christians. Lucia was arrested, tortured and sentenced to live out her days in a brothel. This did make her sway. They tried to burn her on a pyre, but the flames wouldn’t touch her. Eventually a Roman soldier stabbed her in the neck, but even then she didn’t die. According to legend, S:t Lucia died a martyr on the 13th of December year 304 AC. She was soon declared a saint and her some of her remains, namely her eyes, were left in Naples. The rest of her remains are said to have been buried in a church in Venice, that was torn down to make way for a railway station.
Fun fact – Lucia is Latin for “the carrier of light”
The phenomenon of S:t Lucia is strongly connected to Italy, but also to Sweden. There is no exact proof as to why this tradition is celebrated in Sweden, but in the Julian Calendar in medieval times the winter solstice fell on the anniversary of S:t Lucia, 13th of December. It is therefore thought that S:t Lucia became a symbol of brighter times and longer days ahead.
The story of the Lucia dressed in white is said to be traced back to a girl spotted in the morning at Horn, north of Skövde, in 1764. She was carrying candles and had beautiful angelic wings, thought to have been inspired by the German tradition of Christkindlein – a Christmas angel with candles in her hair. This tradition spread through Sweden during the 1800’s and in 1893 a S:t Lucia celebration was introduced at open air museum Skansen. However, the celebration was relatively unknown in many parts of the country and only spread nationwide during the 1900´s. In 1927 the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet hosted an official S:t Lucia procession, similar to what we have today.
The word ”lussa” has become a common word, meaning taking part in a S.t Lucia procession. There is an official S.t Lucia procession, which is broadcasted nationwide, and many people get up extra early on the morning of December 13th to watch it live. Most schools and preschools, as well as other organisations, host their own S:t Lucia procession for friends and family. There are also processions taking place in care homes, churches and malls – always with the Lucia dressed in white at the front. The celebrations often end with a “fika” with mulled wine, gingerbread and saffron buns.
The Lucia leads the procession followed by maids, all dressed in long sleeved white dresses. The Lucia wears a crown with live (or fake) candles and has a red piece of fabric tied around her waist. The maids following behind wear a simple headpiece made of twigs or tinsel. After the maids follow the boys (in Swedish called the “star boys”) also dressed in white robes and a cone-shaped headpiece. They represent the three wise men and king Herodes. They all sing well known hymns associated with this holiday as they slowly stride through aisles.
In S:t Lucia progression where children participate you can also find Christmas elves and gingerbread men and women. There is also likely to be more than one Lucia, as many children dream of carrying the (artificially) lit crown.
Due to the current pandemic there will most likely now be a traditional S:t Lucia procession to enjoy in person at venues like Skansen, Stockholm Cathedral and the Nordic History Museum. Schools and preschools will probably cancel their usual celebrations and record the procession for parents to view digitally. You will, however, be able to watch the annual S:t Lucia procession on Swedish television. It will be livestreamed from a homestead in Jukkasjärvi, located above the arctic circle in northern Sweden. The screening starts at 7 am on SVT1. Set your alarm, make a cosy breakfast and light some candles and get ready to enjoy a wonderfully atmospheric choir. Click here to watch online at SVT Play.